The sheer amount of information available about pregnancy is overwhelming. Couple that with the contradictions found within that information, and you’ve got yourself an emotionally paralyzed expectant mother, terrified that she has already ruined her unborn child because of that one time she looked at a cigarette three years ago.
Sometimes, pregnant women have relatively unremarkable pregnancies, special only in that they were symptom free. But that’s not the norm. Lots of pregnant women face pregnancy related ailments including morning sickness, headaches, fatigue, mood swings, sciatica, itching, pain, and a host of other weird symptoms that can only be nature’s way of preparing women for the (wonderful) absurdity of motherhood.
While these symptoms are usually uncomfortable, for some women, they can be absolutely unbearable, but treatment during pregnancy is extremely limited. During her pregnancy, Dr. Wei-Ni Lin Curry suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a potentially fatal condition causing extreme nausea, vomiting, malnutrition, and weight loss. She documented her personal use of cannabis to alleviate her symptoms, and the direness of her situation as well as the relief cannabis provided is captured in her words:
“Within two weeks of my daughter’s conception, I became desperately nauseated and vomited throughout the day and night… I vomited bile of every shade, and soon began retching up blood… I felt so helpless and distraught that I went to the abortion clinic twice, but both times I left without going through the procedure… Finally I decide to try medical cannabis…Just one to two little puffs at night, and if I needed in the morning, resulted in an entire day of wellness. I went from not eating, not drinking, not functioning, and continually vomiting and bleeding from two orifices to being completely cured… Not only did cannabis save my [life] during the duration of my hyperemesis, it saved the life of the child within my womb.”
In a Vice article, several anonymous women recount experiences similar to the one Dr. Curry faced: debilitating morning sickness and a desperation for treatment led to marijuana use that turned out to be more effective than the doctor’s prescriptions. The anecdotal evidence these stories provide suggest that cannabis consumption during pregnancy isn’t all that uncommon, and, more importantly, doesn’t seem to have an effect on the exposed children.
But cannabis use during pregnancy, while potentially therapeutic, is also socially disparaged and can result in terrible consequences. Hollie Sanford, a Cleveland, Ohio mother, also suffered from debilitating morning sickness, and, after extensive research, decided to use marijuana infused tea as a natural alternative of treating her condition to chemical medication. She specifically refrained from smoking and ingested cannabis orally in order to avoid exposing her unborn child to carbon monoxide. Despite her explanation, and despite the prosecutor’s recommendation that Sanford’s newborn daughter, Nova, remain within her custody, Judge Eleanor Hilow chose to punish Sanford by separating her from her baby.
Even though Nova was born a healthy child, this was within Hilow’s purview. All forms of cannabis are federally illegal because of the plant’s categorization as a Schedule 1 drug, or a substance with a high potential for abuse and no medical use.
Is Cannabis Use During Pregnancy Harmful?
The answer to this question is unclear for a multitude of reasons. First, the only way to answer this question is to perform a longitudinal study on pregnant women who are consuming cannabis and their children at birth and later on in their childhoods. Accomplishing this, however, is ethically problematic. Researchers cannot knowingly put unborn children at risk, and since the effects of marijuana during pregnancy are inconclusive and potentially dangerous, most studies of this nature are based on cell lines, observation, and self-reporting, which can be very unreliable given the stigma many pregnant women fear may be attached to them if they admit drug use during pregnancy.
A December 2015 study reviewed observational studies comparing cannabis consumption rates to birth outcomes. Initially, the study found two consistent outcomes: low birth rate and preterm delivery. However, after sorting out confounding factors such as tobacco or alcohol consumption, the study concluded,
“Maternal marijuana use during pregnancy is not an independent risk factor for adverse neonatal outcomes after adjusting for confounding factors. Thus the association between maternal marijuana and adverse outcomes appears attributable to concomitant tobacco use and other confounding factors.”
That study did not examine neurological effects of marijuana on children exposed to marijuana in utero, and some evidence suggests that fetal exposure to marijuana, which transfers to the child through the placenta and through breast milk postpartum, could result in hyperactivity, poor cognitive function, and alterations in dopaminergic receptors in childhood.
While most studies agree that cannabis use during pregnancy isn’t associated with birth defects, the effect of cannabis on infants who were exposed to cannabis in utero is unclear.
A longitudinal study from the 1980s compared Jamaican babies exposed to marijuana in utero to those who had not been by testing the babies one, three, and thirty days after birth and then again when the children were four and five years old. The study found that there was no significant difference between the two groups of children.
Today, two ongoing cohorts continue to study the neurological impacts of cannabis on children exposed in utero. The first cohort, the Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Study, analyzes children of “high-risk” mothers with low socio-economic status who admitted use of alcohol, marijuana, and other narcotics. This cohort has found that the children of those mothers have lower verbal and reading scores and elevated depression, but it is unclear if those outcomes are a result of marijuana exposure or other environmental variables.
The Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study, the second cohort, examines the children of low-risk mothers, and has found that there is an association between prenatal cannabis exposure and neurological and cognitive deficits, but it is a subtle one and seems connected not only to cannabis exposure, but exposure to alcohol and tobacco as well.
The bottom line
There is not enough evidence to definitively determine the safety of cannabis use during pregnancy, so expecting mothers should consult with their doctors before self-medicating.
Hopefully, the future holds more opportunities for research that will empower women and families to make decisions about their prenatal care based on factual information rather than the fear of judgment.