Who says humans should have all of the fun? When it comes to access to cannabis in California, Dr. Tim Shu wants to make sure that our four-legged friends aren’t being forgotten either.
A former practicing veterinarian turned founder of the company VETCBD, Dr. Shu is currently amassing support for AB-384. If passed, the new legislation would essentially finish the job started by AB-2215 in 2018. The success of that bill ensured that veterinarians were allowed to discuss cannabis with their clients but rather paradoxically did not extend protections for recommending it.
Thus, veterinarians in California can at present legally discuss the topic of cannabis as a pet therapeutic but cannot go so far as to suggest a specific patient might benefit from trying it.
That’s where AB-384 comes in.
“In addition to allowing veterinarians to recommend cannabis as a therapeutic treatment for companion animals,” noted a recent press release, “AB-384 would [also] create a separate category for pet cannabis products that are sold in California dispensaries and subject to the same testing requirements as other products. If AB-384 is passed, California would be the first state to adopt such a law, making history and likely setting a precedent for others, as it did with medical cannabis for human consumption in 1996.”
Drafted by California Assembly member Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), the bill was initially introduced to the assembly on Feb. 2.
As the founder and CEO of VETCBD, this legal loophole is one Dr. Shu would also love to see closed. In that spirit, he spoke to Bloom & Oil about his support for AB-384, our evolving understanding of how cannabis can help our pets, and how much left of the cannabis therapeutic iceberg remains yet to be revealed.
How did VETCBD get started?
DR. TIM SHU: I’m a veterinarian. Prior to getting into the cannabis industry, I practiced in general emergency critical care medicine and I saw that there were so many benefits of cannabis in the human space. A lot of human patients were receiving the benefits of cannabis for a wide number of things. For me, it was like, is there a way for animals to be able to benefit from cannabis as well? Without getting high from it, obviously. It turns out that there are remarkable benefits for cannabis and it’s not just humans that are able to benefit from it. Animals are able to benefit from it as well.
What’s interesting is that cannabis is not something new. It’s been around for thousands and thousands of years but when I started the company, the state of cannabis as medicine was almost non-existent. When I went through veterinary school, we never learned about cannabis as a potential therapeutic. We never learned about the endocannabinoid system, in fact. What I found from talking to a lot of veterinarians and a lot of veterinary students was that they’re still not learning about the endocannabinoid system or about cannabis as a therapeutic. The only time that cannabis was ever mentioned, when I was a student, was in toxicology course: what happens when animals got into too much THC. But nothing about the potential therapeutic benefits, even though we’ve known about the potential therapeutic benefits for quite some time now.
Prior to the whole prohibition movement — the criminalization of cannabis — it was actually a very popular therapeutic. It was listed in the U.S. pharmacopoeia. We knew about the therapeutic benefits. Unfortunately, the mindset that we’ve been dealing with over the past 100 years has been very much against that but we’re starting to see that tide change, which is great.
How much quality research has been done when it comes to the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for non-humans?
That’s an interesting question. When we’re talking about animals, there are different categories. On the one hand, you have lab animals, which are primarily mice and rats. The research surrounding lab animals goes back as far as — or even further than —humans. A lot of times, the therapeutic benefits of cannabis were first found in lab animal models like rats and mice, and then that’s translated over to humans. There are actually a lot of preclinical studies that have looked at mice and rats and the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids in those species, but that’s in a lab setting. When you’re talking about actual pet animals, say dogs or cats, there are very limited studies. We have started to see more studies pop-up in the past few years, with dogs specifically. And then there are other species, like horses, in which there is very, very limited information out there.
Which brings us to this bill now under consideration in the California state legislature. What can you tell me about it?
AB-384 is for recommendation, which is different from prescription. What it does is it tells the veterinary community that this is legitimate and therapeutic and that we really do owe it to our patients and to our clients to embrace it, understand it, and utilize it. Schools are still not teaching about the endocannabinoid system. I think that does have a tie-in with the whole prohibition of cannabis, which is really unfortunate.
Let’s say we discovered that endocrine system 30 years ago. There’s no doubt in my mind that from a human side or the veterinary side, we’d be clamoring to learn as much about it as we can. We’d be teaching about it in schools. We’d be saying, ‘Hey, this is a new body system that was just discovered and we really need to be able to learn as much as we can, so that we can optimize the health and well-being of our patients. We can learn how this impacts and influences disease and treatment.’ But that’s not the case.
The endocannabinoid system is also not just a system that kind of sits by itself, isolated. It’s actually deeply intertwined and connected with all other body systems. It’s found in all organs. It’s not just a system that’s isolated, sitting there by itself. It has an impact on the cardiovascular system, the digestive tract, the neuromuscular system — you name it, it has an impact and it plays a role.
The example that I always give is if you went to your doctor and said, ‘Hey, Doc! What’s this that I’ve been hearing about testosterone or estrogen? What are these hormones? What does the thyroid do?’ And your doctor said, ‘You know, I don’t know anything about hormones. I don’t know what testosterone or estrogen is. I never learned about in school. I don’t know what the endocrine system is. I never learned about it.’ You would think that’s absolutely crazy, right? But that’s actually where we’re at today. Go in and ask about the endocannabinoid system or certain endocannabinoids and what role they can have on your health and well-being. More often than not, the response that you get is, ‘I don’t know. I never learned about it.’
This also has the potential to be the first domino to fall in terms of a national approach, correct?
Exactly. It would set a precedent, just like when California legalized medical cannabis for people in 1996. That’s what we’re aiming to do here, again, in 2021: to set a legal precedent that says that animals can benefit from cannabis and that veterinarians should absolutely be able to talk to their clients and recommend cannabis products, and that people should have access to these cannabis products that are specifically created for animals.
Anecdotally, from your peers in the field, what has it been like since 2018 where you can talk about cannabis but not recommend it?
AB 2215 was signed into law in 2018 and went into effect in 2019. It allows for California veterinarians to discuss cannabis with their clients but the part about recommending cannabis wasn’t in there. What ended-up happening is that most veterinarians in California are aware that they can discuss cannabis but can’t recommend it, so the question that a lot of veterinarians have is: where do they draw that line between discussion and recommendation? A lot of them don’t know where that line exactly is and they don’t want to accidentally overstep their bounds and end-up in some legal gray area or limbo. As a result, a lot of them just completely abstain from talking about it at all. That’s unfortunate because it doesn’t do the client any good if their veterinarian isn’t able to provide them with medical knowledge or information.
Many people are still confused when it comes to how cannabis can help their pets. What do you tell folks who ask about this?
It’s such a common question people have: what are the therapeutic benefits of cannabis? To help people understand the therapeutic benefits of cannabis — and this is based off of scientific research and what clinical trials and studies are pointing towards — I came up with an acronym to help people understand the medical uses of cannabis.
The acronym is PAINS, which stands for pain, anxiety, inflammation, nausea/appetite loss, and seizures. That’s certainly not the full list either. We’re finding out now about all of these different formulations and different cannabinoids which may be more beneficial for certain conditions. In general, however, when we’re talking about cannabis, PAINS are the things that we have found cannabis, as a scientific and medical community, to be very beneficial for. Granted, it’s not going to work one hundred percent of the time in one hundred percent of the patients. But for a lot of patients, it can be very therapeutic and it can be very beneficial — especially for patients suffering from things that traditional medications have difficulty treating.
For example, humans have chronic pain conditions and seizure conditions and sometimes traditional therapeutics used to treat those conditions don’t control the chronic pain or the seizures as well as we’d like. That’s when one may find a lot of relief with cannabis.
Do patients — or their human owners — seem more aware of cannabis now than they did, say, five years ago?
Yes, absolutely. Once I started a company, I retired from practice, but from what I’ve heard from veterinarians who are in practice, a lot of them are getting asked about it on a weekly or even daily basis. It has become a very popular topic amongst pet owners, and rightly so, because it does have therapeutic value. People always want to be able to do what’s best for their pet and to be able to increase their pet’s quality of life, so for a lot of pet owners, seeing the positive values and benefits of cannabis likely appeals as something they’d want to implement into their pets’ regiment.
We’ve also seen a dramatic shift in the number of veterinarians who are now more comfortable discussing cannabis or CBD with their clients. It’s increasing year over year. The number of veterinarians who appreciate and understand that there is therapeutic value behind cannabis is also increasing year over year. A lot of that is because they are seeing it firsthand with their clients and patients. A lot of times, these clients are coming and saying, ‘Hey, my dog’s been on CBD and I’m seeing remarkable benefits in terms of their mobility,’ etc. We’ve had a number of people report drastic reductions in the number of seizures a pet is having after they started on cannabis or CBD.
And these are, a lot of times, life-changing results, so it’s really important for pet owners to be able to discuss it with their veterinarian and to feel comfortable having an open dialogue about it.
And these benefits extend beyond cats and dogs, right?
Yes. In the cannabis landscape, animals tend to get forgotten. Especially when it comes to the therapeutic aspects of cannabis and CBD, most of the focus has been on humans. What’s interesting is that all vertebrate animals have an endocannabinoid system. When I say vertebrate animals, I mean all animals that have a backbone: mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. They all have endocannabinoid systems, and they all stand to benefit from cannabinoid therapeutics.
Even though dogs and cats are the primary species that people have as pets, other animals, like horses, can majorly benefit from cannabis as well. We’ve had people to talk to us about how cannabis has benefited their pet pig, ferret, rabbit, birds, rats — you name it. All of these animals have the potential to benefit from cannabis, so even though the primary focus for cannabis has been on humans, we’re now trying to bring attention to the idea that humans are not the only species that can benefit from cannabis.
I always tell people that we’re still just at the tip of the iceberg. This is a very, very big iceberg — we don’t know how big it is — but we know we’re simply at the tip of it. What we need to do is to remove the restrictions and the barriers to access and research so that we can benefit patients even more. The way medicine is practiced today is not the way that it was practiced yesterday: it’s improved. It’s gotten better. And the way that it’s going to be practiced tomorrow is not the way that it’s practiced today: it’s going to get better. The way that we do that is by taking bold, intelligent risks. The thing that I always have in mind is this: how do we find tomorrow’s solutions for today’s patients? We know that there are lots of patients — humans and animals — that stand to benefit from cannabis or other therapeutics.
What can folks who want to voice their support do to help?
We’ve got an amazing opportunity for the public to show they’re behind this because we know that there are a lot of pet owners out there who have seen their pets benefit from cannabis or CBD. They have seen the results and now we want them to be able to have a voice, to be able to talk to their legislators and say, ‘Hey, this really benefits my animals. It really helps their well-being and we should be able to have access to it and more people should have access to it. And I want my veterinarian to be a part of that conversation.’
There’s a letter of support people can quickly fill out and it’ll get sent to the legislators. Throughout the course of this year, we’ll be sending those letters of support to legislators to show them that the people of California want to be able to have access for their pets, and they want to be able to get recommendations from their veterinarian.