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Can Your Dog Be Dangerously Exposed to Marijuana Even If You Don’t Smoke?

You bet he can, and so begins another chapter in my long, controversial history of talking about pot's effects on dogs.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Apr 12th 2016


I see a large number of dogs who are exposed to toxic items. Some of the toxins, such as xylitol and arthritis medications including Rimadyl, are extremely dangerous. Others, such as grapes and chocolate, fall in the middle of the road. They’re definitely toxic, but I’ve yet to lose a patient to either one when appropriate treatment was administered.

And then there is one “toxin” that, although formally considered toxic, is more amusing than dangerous. I’m referring, of course, to marijuana. (Did I offend you by calling it something other than cannabis? If so, you might not want to continue reading.)

I moved to the Bay Area in 1994. One of my first memories of San Francisco involved a group of three women sitting on a curb, passing a marijuana pipe back and forth, smoking heavily. Directly behind them stood a uniformed police officer. He very willfully ignored their actions. Welcome to California.

Marijuana plant by Shutterstock.

Marijuana plant by Shutterstock.

Two years later, Californians voted on Proposition 215, the nation’s first law that would legalize marijuana for medical use. I remember debating with a vet school roommate who opposed the law. He worried that it would be the first step toward outright legalization. I agreed that it was a step toward full legalization, and that was the point. I voted for the law, and it passed handily. I had no idea of the storm that I was helping to unleash.

Let me go back just a bit, to the part about outright legalization of marijuana. I supported it then, and I support it now. Despite this, I frequently am the target of attempted online abuse from politically correct drug-culture thought police (I say attempted because the harsh words roll right off my back, causing amusement but never harm). In my youth, such a thing never would have been conceivable — drug culture and police never mixed, and drug use was associated with free thinking. Now, not so much.

It all started with my website, drbarchas.com. As a practicing vet in the Bay Area, I soon learned that dogs not only loved baked goods containing marijuana, but also found the plants themselves to be palatable. Marijuana intoxication is one of the most common things I treat. In 2007, when I was working on the website, I felt that there was a dearth of honest information about marijuana exposure in dogs. I wrote a page on my website that described the symptoms of marijuana intoxication in dogs, and I also mentioned the prognosis for dogs exposed to the stuff. The prognosis is excellent. At the time I wrote the webpage, most experts believed that death from marijuana ingestion was impossible.

A great many people responded to the webpage. Many were thankful for an honest assessment. Others thought that I was a horrible person, making light of a serious (in their mind) drug. Guilty as charged. I’ve never believed that marijuana was a serious drug or a problem for society.

Fast forward to 2016, and I cannot believe how societal opinions about marijuana have changed. I am continuously assaulted with advertisements for the laetrile of the 2010s: CBD. For those who haven’t heard, CBD is a derivative of cannabis (which now is the only allowable word in some circles for the plants that used to be called marijuana). Its supporters claim that it has a variety of medical benefits. It treats pain. It cures glaucoma. It no doubt treats gout, male pattern baldness, and erectile dysfunction. It has no harmful side effects, blah, blah, blahbetty blah.

The promoters of CBD can always come up with plenty of testimonials. But they always come up short when asked for randomized, controlled, double-blinded studies that demonstrate the efficacy of the product, especially in dogs. They’re too busy trying to make a buck off the stuff to do something as mundane as run a study.

Dr. Eric Barchas and Buster. (Photo courtesy Dr. Eric Barchas)

Dr. Eric Barchas and Buster. (Photo courtesy Dr. Eric Barchas)

And, in my experience, promoters of CBD are something that the stoners I knew in my youth never were: uptight. How on earth has political correctness taken over pot culture?

No doubt, I just offended someone with the use of the word “pot.” People shout at me online if I dare to call it anything but “cannabis.” “Pot” is out. “Weed” is offensive. “Marijuana” is out. What used to be called “buds” now must be called “flowers.” “Dope” is a fighting word. Give me a break.

My haters don’t merely hate my verbiage. They hate that my website now brings up an inconvenient fact. It is possible for dogs to die from marijuana, er, cannabis exposure. The Journal of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society published an article in December 2012, which described the deaths of two dogs who consumed medical-grade pot butter.

That fact really pisses some people off. People have written to me, evidently forgetting that I’m only the messenger, to call me a liar, a scoundrel, and worse. How dare I say that marijuana has the potential to be dangerous? Actually, I didn’t say it — I just relayed information reported by someone else. Oh, and did I mention that I support legalization?

In California, marijuana is not legal for recreational use. But it might as well be. The stuff is everywhere, and in my experience marijuana exposure ranks second only to chocolate among “toxin” exposures.

Despite the trend toward pot permissiveness, old-fashioned types are still out there. To this day, some clients become offended when I suggest that their dog appears to be stoned. There is no marijuana in the house, they angrily protest (sometimes with a very nervous looking teenager present). How dare I accuse them of being drug users?

I gently point out in such circumstances that marijuana is ubiquitous in the Bay Area, and there needn’t be drugs in the house for dogs to be exposed to the stuff. Dogs who consume marijuana often become uncoordinated and clumsy; the same is true of people who consume it. It is not unknown for stoned folks to drop their stashes.

Many people remain angry and incredulous after I point this out. They claim never to have seen marijuana just lying around in public. I am happy that I now have photographic evidence to prove my point. As I walked to the post office on Monday, I saw this on the sidewalk:

Dope on Sidewalk by Eric Barchas

Dope on sidewalk. (Photo courtesy Dr. Eric Barchas)

It is what would have been known as a dime bag in the ’90s. I have no idea what it would be called now, but I have a hunch that I’d get my ass kicked if I used the term “dime bag” in one of San Francisco’s rougher dispensaries. If I had been walking my pal Buster and texting rather than attending to him when we came upon this, he assuredly would have been stoned two hours later.

I didn’t touch the bag. I support legalization, but dope’s not legal yet.