The Legal and Ethical Quandaries of Getting Your Pet Stoned
In case that's something you and your pets are into.
Photo by Flickr user Tony Alter
We can never be sure what Bruce Blunt, a 40-year-old marijuana aficionado in Chicago, was thinking when he blew a puff of weed smoke into his pet chameleon's mouth. What we do know is that he wasn't charged for animal cruelty.
Blunt (yes, that's his real name) became a viral sensation when the video of him blowing marijuana smoke into his pet chameleon's mouth racked up over 500,000 views in a matter of days. Blunt claims the smoke helps calm his chameleon, whose name is Binna and who can sometimes be aggressive. After catching wind of the video, PETA filed a complaint with Chicago authorities, who arrested Blunt several days later. However, Judge Robert Kuzas ruled that Blunt's behavior, while "really, really uncalled for and immature," was not criminal, as the animal showed no signs of harm. Blunt was acquitted.
In Colorado and Washington, it's now completely legal for (human) adults to use marijuana. But veterinarians in these states are specifically prohibited by law from prescribing cannabis to animals, as one woman learned after driving to Colorado from Utah because she mistakenly believed she could obtain a medical marijuana prescription for her dog. There is no state in which it's legal for veterinarians to prescribe medical pot for dogs, although the Nevada legislature is debating a bill that would allow it.
If you live in California, you can legally purchase Treatibles, dog treats that contain cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound in marijuana. The treats contain no THC, which is the compound that gets you high. The makers of Treatibles claim their treats can help aging dogs with aches and pains, just like medical marijuana can for humans.
There isn't much legal precedent for stoned pets and their owners. Most weed ingested by pets is done so unbeknownst to the owner—usually a case of the pet getting into their owner's stash of edibles. In May, Robin Thicke and his girlfriend April Love Geary told TMZ their dog was hospitalized for ingesting marijuana, but no one alerted the authorities or complained about animal cruelty. Last August, a Michigan woman posted a video of her dog, who had accidentally ingested her marijuana, acting "stoned," while the woman looked on and laughed. Viewers were outraged and posted thousands of comments accusing the woman of animal abuse. According to local news station WXYZ, Animal Control began an investigation into the case, but it appears no legal action was ever taken.
It's much harder to find cases of owners intentionally getting their pets high (and owning up to it). I wondered if that might be because it's not exactly clear whether it's legal—or ethical, for that matter. I asked Suzanna Harman, an animal rights attorney, where she stood. Harman told me that if we're talking about criminal law, there's no law that specifically states that it's illegal for pet-owners to give their pets weed.
"There are different animal cruelty statutes in each state," Harman told me, "so a judge would have to look at the facts of each individual case and see if the manner in which the pet guardian attempted to, or did, get the pet 'high' amounted to animal cruelty. This isn't to say that it won't one day be specifically outlawed, but it's such a new area right now, there are no statutes along those lines."
She also explained Blunt's case further: "Under Illinois law, there are a few levels of animal abuse: cruel treatment, aggravated cruelty, and animal torture. Cruel treatment is defined as: [any] person or owner [who] beat[s], cruelly treat[s], torment[s], starve[s], overwork[s], or otherwise abuse[s] any animal. Aggravated cruelty is defined as: [any] person [who] intentionally commits an act that causes a companion animal to suffer serious injury or death. Animal torture is defined as: [any] person commits animal torture when that person without legal justification knowingly or intentionally tortures an animal." Blunt was acquitted because his actions didn't fall under any of these categories.
Harman also told me that there are subsections in most state animal cruelty laws that make exceptions for veterinarians. She told me, for example, that under Illinois law, "the definition of animal torture does not include 'any alteration or destruction of any animal done by any person or unit of government pursuant to statute, ordinance, court order, or the direction of a licensed veterinarian.' So, if eventually medical marijuana was prescribed to pets by veterinarians, then that would account for an exception to any illegality of the pet guardian getting the pet 'high.'"
As I mentioned earlier, there are currently no states that legally allow veterinarians to prescribe marijuana to pets. In states where marijuana is legal for physicians to prescribe marijuana to humans, vets could still be criminalized for writing marijuana prescriptions for animals because, as Harman explained, "there would have to be another law passed altogether on behalf of animals for it to be legally prescribed to them by veterinarians." But, as she pointed out, marijuana statutes are very new, so it's not crazy to think it might be possible in the future.
Aside from the legal implications, another big question is whether it's ethical to give your pets marijuana? I posed the question to Dr. Robert Goggs, a Doctor of Veterinary Science and lecturer at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He believes it would be "misguided but not unethical for a pet owner to attempt to alleviate pain or distress in their own pet using medical marijuana," but adds that he'd much prefer the person seek veterinary advice before doing so. "Veterinarians have access to a wide range of painkillers designed for and/or routinely used in animals that we know are safe, effective, and inexpensive," said Dr. Goggs. "Why experiment with a drug that may not help and might harm when you can readily obtain safe and effective drugs instead?"
I also asked him about the effectiveness of the drug in animals. Are people like Blunt anthropomorphizing their pets by assuming they'll get high like we do?
Dr. Goggs told me that "the receptors for the active ingredient in cannabis and marijuana are found in the brain and in the other tissues of dogs, and probably cats too. We know that the drug produces signs of intoxication in both dogs and cats. This implies that the drug and its metabolites cross into the brain and affect the receptors—so you could say the drug is 'effective.'"
At the same time, "there isn't really a safe dose for marijuana in dogs or cats, so it isn't sensible to try to use it." Plus, Dr. Goggs added, "plenty of veterinarians have seen dogs and cats become sick from eating their owners' pot edibles. Most pets will recover, but there is a chance that ingesting medical-grade pot could kill your pet."
For now, it's probably safest to avoid giving your pets marijuana. If they're suffering from physical pain, stick with the time-tested method of taking them to a vet. If they just seem bored, buying them a new toy is a lot safer—and cheaper—than giving them weed. And remember that pets can't tell time, so when the clock hits 4:20 each day, keep the weed to yourself. They'll be none the wiser.
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