Is Catnip Illegal? The Truth About This Controversial Cat Plant

What is Catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae). It’s a perennial herb that grows as a bushy, flowering plant. Native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, catnip grows wild in temperate regions and has naturalized in some areas of North America. The leaves, stems, and flowers of the catnip plant contain compounds called nepetalactones that cause the euphoric effects in cats when smelled or ingested.

Nepetalactones act as cat attractants and stimulate cats who sniff, chew, or roll in the plant. While catnip has a potency effect on cats, other plants like silver vine and valerian root have similar attracant and stimulating effects.

Some key facts about catnip include:

  • Botanical name: Nepeta cataria
  • Common names: catmint, catnip
  • Plant family: Lamiaceae (mint)
  • Native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa
  • Grows in temperate climates
  • Leaves, stems and flowers contain nepetalactones
  • Causes euphoric effects in many domestic cats

In summary, catnip is a mint family plant containing compounds that cause a stimulating and euphoric response in cats when smelled or ingested. The botanical name for catnip is Nepeta cataria.

close up image of catnip plant

(Sources: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-how-does-catnip-work-on-cats/, https://www.vox.com/2014/9/12/6136451/catnip-cats-science)

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

Catnip contains an essential oil called nepetalactone that causes a response when cats ingest or smell it[1]. Nepetalactone binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and stimulates sensory neurons, which leads to the euphoric effects[2].

Most cats exhibit a response to catnip by sniffing, licking, chewing, head shaking, rolling, and rubbing. They may become playful, vocalize, or relax and “zone out.” The response to catnip is hereditary, with an estimated 70-80% of cats affected by it[1].

Catnip causes temporary euphoria in cats that typically lasts about 10 minutes before subsiding. It is not harmful or addictive. While a small percentage of cats may show an adverse reaction like aggression or anxiety, catnip is generally very safe for cats to enjoy[3].

The active chemicals in catnip are metabolized quickly, which means cats can enjoy catnip without negative side effects. However, they do build up a temporary tolerance if exposed to catnip regularly[2].

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-how-does-catnip-work-on-cats/
[2] https://www.vox.com/2014/9/12/6136451/catnip-cats-science
[3] https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/crazy-catnip

Is Catnip Harmful to Cats?

Many cat owners wonder if catnip is addictive or has harmful side effects for their feline friends. While catnip does produce a temporary high in cats, research shows that it is completely safe and non-addictive. The key chemical that causes the euphoric response in cats is called nepetalactone. This binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and triggers overstimulation of sensory neurons. However, the effects wear off in about 10-15 minutes once the chemical is processed. According to veterinarians, cats cannot become addicted or dependent on catnip (source).

There are no known toxic side effects of catnip, even with repeated exposure. Most cats respond to catnip by rolling around, rubbing against it, hyperactivity, and playfulness. While the high might seem intense, it is not harmful. In fact, many cat owners use catnip toys and treats for enrichment and exercise. As long as it is given in moderation, catnip is considered totally safe for cats by veterinary professionals (source). The main side effect is a short-term excitable state, which quickly dissipates once the catnap is over.

Catnip Legality Overview

Catnip has a long history of legal and unregulated use. The herb has been utilized for centuries as a cat treat and an herbal tea for humans, with no known restrictions. Unlike marijuana and other controlled substances, catnip does not have psychoactive effects in humans and is not classified as a drug.

The first regulations surrounding recreational substances like alcohol, marijuana, and opiates in the early 20th century did not apply to catnip. While federal agencies like the DEA and FDA now regulate many herbal supplements, catnip has avoided scrutiny and remained in a legal gray area.

With no evidence of harm or abuse potential, there has never been cause for governments to address restricting catnip. And the herb’s popularity as a cat treat has continued unimpeded to this day. Currently, catnip remains legal at both the federal and state level in the US. Most experts agree national prohibition is unlikely barring unforeseen circumstances.

Current Federal Catnip Laws

At the federal level in the United States, catnip is not classified as a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA has no official classification or regulation of catnip under the Controlled Substances Act.

dea seal signifying not a controlled substance

Catnip is generally considered a safe, non-addictive herb for cats when used appropriately. The active chemical compound in catnip, called nepetalactone, does not produce effects in humans that would necessitate DEA regulation. Nepetalactone binds to feline olfactory receptors, stimulating a response, but does not have the same effect in humans.

While the psychoactive properties of catnip only affect cats, there are currently no federal laws restricting its growth, sale, or distribution in the United States. Catnip is legal to cultivate, sell, buy, and own under federal law.

Some key considerations on the federal legality of catnip include:

  • The FDA has warned against marketing catnip for off-label use in dogs or ingestion by cats, as it has not been evaluated as safe for those uses (FDA Warning Letter). However, topical use in cats is unrestricted.
  • Catnip cannot be sold, marketed, or labeled as a dietary supplement or drug intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. It does not have FDA approval for such purposes.
  • Some states have imposed additional regulations on the sale and distribution of catnip. However, these are local restrictions and catnip remains federally legal.

In summary, catnip is not a controlled substance at the federal level and there are currently no federal laws prohibiting the possession, use, cultivation, or sale of catnip in the United States.

State Catnip Laws

Catnip legality varies widely across different states. While there are currently no federal laws banning or restricting catnip, individual states have the ability to regulate or prohibit the substance under their own laws.

In most states, catnip is legal and unregulated. These states take a hands-off approach, allowing residents to grow, buy, sell, and use catnip freely. States where catnip is legal include California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

Some states have regulations regarding selling or distributing catnip, but still allow possession and use. For example, in Illinois it is illegal to sell or distribute catnip to minors under 18 years old. Other states may require vendors to obtain a general business license in order to sell catnip products [1].

Currently, there are no states that completely prohibit catnip. However, a few individual cities and counties have enacted municipal bans outlawing possession and sale of catnip locally. These municipal ordinances ban catnip even while it remains legal at the state level.

In summary, catnip legality and regulation varies widely between states. Most take a hands-off approach, while some states add age limits or general business restrictions around the sale of catnip. Total prohibition at the state level remains rare, though some localities have imposed bans.

Municipal Catnip Ordinances

While there are no federal or state laws banning catnip in the United States, some local municipalities have enacted ordinances restricting or prohibiting the possession, sale, or cultivation of catnip. These municipal bans are fairly rare and limited in scope.

For example, in 2010 the city council of Barnum, Minnesota passed a city ordinance making it illegal to grow, sell, or possess catnip or catnip products. Violators faced a petty misdemeanor charge. The ordinance was highly controversial, with the mayor eventually vetoing the bill after much public outcry. The ban was seen as an overreach of government authority.(1)

gavel by catnip ban ordinance

Another example is in Woodbury, New Jersey, where the city council proposed a ban on catnip in 2017. The ordinance did not pass, but it highlighted the debate around regulating products that cause intoxicating effects in animals. (2)

While local catnip bans occasionally pop up, they are difficult to enforce and have not spread more broadly. Most experts argue that catnip is safe for feline consumption and does not justify restriction. However, municipalities retain the right to propose ordinances banning or regulating catnip locally.

Enforcing Catnip Laws

Enforcing laws around catnip possession and use can be challenging for a few key reasons:

First, catnip is widely available for legal purchase, making it difficult to determine if a substance is illicit or not. Catnip can be purchased online, at pet stores, and even grocery stores in many states, so simply possessing catnip does not necessarily indicate illegal activity [1].

Second, the effects of catnip are mild and temporary, meaning any impairment in cats would be relatively minor and short-lived. This makes evaluating catnip intoxication more challenging compared to cases involving other substances [2].

Finally, there are no roadside tests for catnip impairment in cats, unlike tests for alcohol intoxication in humans. Officers would likely rely on behavioral cues and their judgement to determine if a cat is under the influence of catnip.

Given these limitations, enforcement around catnip laws tends to be complaint-driven and targeted towards cases involving underage cats, rather than widespread proactive enforcement. Fines and confiscation of catnip are more common penalties than criminal charges.

Arguments For/Against Catnip Bans

There are perspectives both for and against banning or restricting catnip. Some argue that catnip should be regulated like other substances that can alter an animal’s state of mind. They point to the sedative effects of nepetalactone and believe access should be controlled to protect cats from potential overdoses or addiction. Some municipalities have banned catnip, citing concerns over the welfare of cats and the desire to avoid nuisance behaviors induced by catnip (1).

Others argue that catnip is harmless and regulating it would be an overreaction. They say the effects wear off quickly and point out that most cats lose interest in catnip after 10-15 minutes of exposure. They claim catnip provides enrichment for cats by stimulating natural instincts to roll, rub, and play. Veterinarians state that catnip is safe for cats and does not lead to dependence or addiction (2). Some cat owners and advocates believe banning catnip would be an infringement on people’s freedom to care for their pets as they choose.

person sprinkling catnip onto a toy

(1) [https://www.quora.com/Should-catnip-be-banned-or-at-least-use-only-for-medical-use-since-it-has-a-drug-like-effect-on-cats-and-is-it-harmful]

(2) [https://petdr.in/catnip-pros-and-cons/]

The Future of Catnip Laws

Catnip laws have historically been controversial and vary widely across different jurisdictions. With increasing research around the effects of catnip on feline health and behavior, it’s likely we will see continued evolution of catnip legislation in the coming years.

On one side, some argue that catnip should be more tightly regulated or banned outright due to concerns around potential addiction and long-term impacts on cats. Proponents of greater restrictions often point to studies showing catnip activates opioid receptors in the cat brain, producing a temporary euphoric state that some claim is equivalent to a “high” [1]. However, most experts agree catnip is generally harmless in moderation.

On the other side, many cat owners and industry advocates argue catnip is a safe way to provide enrichment and exercise for cats. Completely banning catnip could negatively impact cat health and welfare, they claim. They also point out it’s natural for cats to be attracted to catnip.

In the coming years, we may see a compromise approach gain traction, where catnip is regulated similarly to cannabis – legal but with limits on potency and access. This could involve requiring proof of age for purchase, limiting commercial catnip products to leaves and spices rather than concentrated oils, and restricting sales locations. However, total bans at the state or national level seem unlikely given the widespread use of catnip today.

Ultimately, catnip laws will continue adapting as we learn more about the unique effects of Nepeta cataria on felines. The priority for lawmakers on all sides of the debate is protecting cat health and welfare. With thoughtful regulations rather than outright bans, catnip can likely remain legal in most jurisdictions moving forward.

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