A major concern of folks on the path of becoming a practicing herbalist is that they’ll get sued for practicing medicine without a license. Being an herbalist in the United States is a little bit of a grey area, as there are thousands of practitioners out there helping people with plants that aren’t necessarily licensed physicians. This is in certain ways a blessing because there is no governmental body telling us how to (and how not to) practice herbalism. But it does lead to legal concerns.
In essence, it comes down to how we communicate about the work that we do. As herbalists we are not legally able to diagnose, prescribe medicine, or treat disease. Rather, we holistically evaluate and assess a person, make suggestions in regards to diet, lifestyle, herbs and supplements, and support the health of people’s organ systems and tissues. Simply by making sure we shape our language and communication in how we approach our work is one of the best ways for protecting ourselves.
There are actually very few cases of herbalists being sued for practicing medicine without a license. First and foremost we must make sure that we always heal and don’t harm our clients (note, not patients!!). This is best done by using gentle, mild, and safe herbal medicines that aren’t likely to have any toxic side effects.
This also brings us questioning around certification for becoming a practicing herbalist. Again, there is no overarching governmental body that oversees this. In North American, the American Herbalist Guild (AHG) provides the most universally recognized herbal practitioner certification, where one becomes a Registered Herbalists (R.H.) with the AHG. They have stringent qualifications on education, overseen clinical hours, and testing that enables someone to hold this level of certification.
But do you really have to be “certified” to help people with plants?
The short answer is no. Anyone can become a practicing herbalist and not have a single piece of paper that gives them permission to do so. This is a sort of double edged sword. From one perspective, someone could attend a weekend workshop and receive a certificate that says they’re a “master herbalist” which could induce a false sense of confidence in someone and get them to start practicing too early, before they have the right level of competence to start being an effective practitioner.
That being said, there are a wide variety of herbal schools that offer their own internal certification that is solid and equips people with the tools and practices that make them a good clinical herbalist. But that you legally need that piece of paper to say you can do so is simply not true.
I believe there is a deeper level of certification, one that doesn’t externally impose your confidence within yourself to practice. It’s not a certificate from any college, university, program, or training – rather it is the authorization and certification we receive from Nature herself. When we do our work, our research, our studies with both plants and people, as our competence builds, there comes a point where we feel it is time for us to share our knowledge, understanding, and healing gift with the world and start helping others.
From my perspective, the best way to protect yourself from legal concerns in practicing herbalism is to simply do good work, help and not harm people, not mess with peoples prescription drugs, know the scope of your practice (i.e. when to refer someone to another, more qualified practitioner for serious conditions that are over your head), and to watch what you say.
The chances of someone suing your a pretty slim. And for the most part, herbalists are working with people that are already open to medicinal plants and natural medicine. If you take good care of them they won’t sue you!