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Products for animals containing hemp have gone mainstream in some parts of the country, appearing on shelves at national chains as well as smaller pet stores.
Beginning Nov. 1, Idaho regulators intend to begin attentively enforcing a long-standing state prohibition on the sales of animal foods that contain hemp or hemp derivatives, as well as hemp products sold as health remedies.
The enforcement action is spurred, paradoxically, by the recent development of an in-state hemp farming and processing industry.
A 2021 law that legalized production, processing, transporting of and research using industrial hemp in Idaho does not permit hemp products in animal feed, including pet food and treats, according to Chanel Tewalt, deputy director of communications at the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
As the state began this year to license producers and handlers of hemp, Tewalt said, "a number have asked, 'Can I produce animal food with hemp?' The answer is 'No.' "
The queries led state officials to confront the fact that merchants in Idaho have been selling animal foods containing hemp ingredients grown and made elsewhere. Around the country, such products have become mainstream, available in specialty pet shops and national retail chains, as well as by mail order.
For Idaho, that's a problem. "You have to make sure that products manufactured elsewhere and sent here are held to the same rules," Tewalt explained.
She noted that not everything containing hemp falls within the agency's purview. "If you have a product that is not a feed but say, an extract, and it makes no claim — doesn't say 'assists with joint health' or 'aids digestion' — our authority doesn't extend that far," she said, implying that the regulator would not seek to remove a product like that from the market.
Also beyond the agency's authority are topical products such as creams and ointments or shampoos; and mats and bedding containing hemp fibers, according to information Tewalt provided.
The Idaho Veterinary Medical Association has taken no position on the issue. But some in the profession worry that an animal with a condition eased by a product containing, for example, cannabidiol (CBD), a hemp extract with proven therapeutic value in people, may suffer if the product is abruptly withdrawn.
"If there are patients, let's say epileptics, [whose owners] have been buying these products locally and now they're going to be forced to get these products elsewhere, they need to know well in advance," said Dr. Dawn Boothe, a veterinary internal medicine specialist and a clinical pharmacology consultant at the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service.
State officials gave more than three months' notice about the coming crackdown. The state Department of Agriculture announced in a memo dated July 20 that it would be "inspecting for hemp and hemp-derived animal feeds and remedies," as of Nov. 1. Products found on or after that date "will be subject to a stop sale and further action from the department."
Tewalt said the agency wanted merchants to have time to learn about the prohibition and adjust. "It was our best attempt at the time to not show up tomorrow," she said. "This law isn't new, but that doesn't mean people were aware of it. Our intent is not to be punitive, but we need to make sure that retailers in Idaho bringing in out-of-state products know that ... the licensed producers in the state are held to the same standard."
State, federal policies are a hodgepodge
While Idaho law does not permit hemp-containing and hemp-derived products for animals, some states do, according to a March 10 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The situation exemplifies how inconsistent cannabis policies in the United States sow confusion.
The mishmash is rooted in the federal government's long-standing stance that cannabis, or marijuana, is dangerous, with no beneficial value. It is regulated as a Schedule I substance, a classification for drugs considered to have high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
Voters began challenging that stance by legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, state by state. The first was California, in 1996. Today, 37 states, three territories and the District of Columbia allow for medical use of cannabis, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
As attitudes toward cannabis relaxed from one jurisdiction to the next, voters began pushing toward legalization for recreational purposes, too. The first states to do so were Colorado and Washington, in 2012. Now cannabis is allowed for casual use by adults in 19 states, two territories and D.C., NCSL tracking shows. As laws permitting recreational cannabis spread, so did the availability of cannabis-containing products.
California law lets veterinarians
But Idaho does not recognize cannabis as medicine, never mind allowing casual use.
The policy complications deepened when Congress, in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, opened the door to domestic cultivation of industrial hemp. Although hemp is a form of cannabis, it is defined in the law as a plant containing less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the component of marijuana that causes a high. Hemp may contain CBD, though.
That farm bill prompted further proliferation of hemp-containing products, as states created programs enabling hemp to be farmed and processed within their borders. In 2021, Idaho became the 50th state to do so.
But when it comes to animal food and feed, Idaho considers hemp to be an adulterant and, therefore, illegal. The state follows the lead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Association of American Feed Control Officials, neither of which recognizes hemp as an approved ingredient in animal food.
Boothe, the veterinary clinical pharmacologist, who recently retired from the faculty of Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, has been following cannabis science, law and policy for years. She wrote a commentary earlier this year, "Why cannabis products for animals can be risky," about the lack of standardization of non-drug products that contain cannabis and its derivatives.
Considering the confusing policy landscape and Wild West-style market, Boothe said, Idaho's enforcement plan is understandable. "I'm surprised more states haven't done this — and more states might, now that Idaho's doing this," she mused.
Boothe was pleased to learn that the state crackdown will focus, in part, on products that make health claims. "I kind of like that because there's so many bogus claims being put on the label; they're really inappropriate," she said.
At the same time, Boothe is concerned about the consequences for animals for whom cannabis products have been beneficial. "There is sufficient scientific evidence of efficacy of CBD as an anti-epileptic in people. We are building the evidence [in animals]," she said. "... If they are responding [well] to the product and there is no longer a source, that puts them in serious harm's way."
A growing body of research suggests CBD — which is one of multiple biologically active components found in cannabis — has medicinal value. In 2018, the FDA approved the first CBD-based drug derived from the cannabis plant. The drug, Epidiolex, is labeled for use in human patients with certain types of epilepsy and a rare genetic condition called tuberous sclerosis complex. No CBD-containing drugs have been approved to date for veterinary patients.
Tewalt, the Idaho agriculture department deputy director, said advocates of hemp and hemp derivatives have implored her department to look at the research. "There are people who are passionate about these products and want to provide us with scientific information about benefits and efficacy," she said. "But we don't have a regulatory mechanism to look at that data and say, 'Yes, it's approved.' "
Developing that regulatory mechanism would require a change in law, she said. "If you don't like how a policy stands today, please avail yourself of the policymaking process," she advised. In other words: Work to have the law changed.
Toward that end, the National Animal Supplement Council is circulating a petition asking the state to delay enforcement action until the next legislative session in 2023, giving time for lawmakers to draft a bill allowing "the responsible sale of these valuable products for all our companion animals."
The organization maintains that "removing CBD pet products from the marketplace paves the way for a black-market industry of unscrupulous suppliers selling questionable products that could end up harming animals. It may also lead to pet owners turning to human products that aren't formulated for pets or marijuana products that contain high levels of THC."
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.