Experts Worried as More Pregnant Women Use Cannabis

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

In the study of 12,988 pregnant women, the number of women smoking cigarettes went from 17.5 percent in 2002 to 10 percent in 2016, while alcohol use dropped from 10 percent of women in 2002 to 8.5 percent in 2016. Cannabis was the only substance of the three that rose. In 2002, 3 percent of women used it — and that rose to 5 percent in 2016.

Marijuana mommies

Why are women taking marijuana when they’re pregnant? Some claim it helps tremendously with nausea, while others may have used it prior to conception and continued during their pregnancy.

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Kelly C. Young-Wolff, PhD, a drug abuse researcher at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said that prenatal marijuana use has become more prevalent as changes with legalization, accessibility, and acceptance of marijuana have occurred.

There’s some preliminary evidence that women perceive marijuana as natural, and thus safe to use during pregnancy, she said.

They found that more than one-third of dispensaries endorsed marijuana as being safe during pregnancy. And 69 percent of them recommended cannabis to relieve nausea.

The use of marijuana to relieve nausea is something Young-Wolff recently studied, too. Her team reported last month that the prevalence of prenatal marijuana use was significantly elevated among women with nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, and some women may use marijuana to self-medicate morning sickness.

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She said more research is needed to fully understand why more pregnant women are using marijuana.

The recent report in JAMA Pediatrics didn’t speculate why cannabis use is up in pregnant women; it only reported on data indicating that more women are using it while expecting.

Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a pediatrician from Colorado, told ishonest that he believes prenatal marijuana usage has increased due to more access.

“Since pot has been legalized in the state, it has become way easier to obtain,” he said.

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Also, many people who moved to the state to legally use pot recreationally become pregnant and continue using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — a cannabinoid in cannabis — during pregnancy.

Brown said he wasn’t aware of any obstetricians giving eligible pregnant patients medical marijuana cards, which would allow a person to purchase marijuana for medical uses. In some states, women can purchase it legally without a medical marijuana card.

“My sense is that pregnant women using marijuana used it recreationally before they got pregnant and continued using it once they got pregnant,” he said.

Data dilemmas?

Some women may perceive marijuana as natural and therefore safe. This could be another reason for the increase.

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Cannabis hasn’t been tested in pregnant women out of concern about harming the mother or the baby. Animal research has linked it to having a higher risk of underweight and premature infants.

“Although the health effects of prenatal cannabis use are complex and not well understood, no amount of cannabis has been shown to be safe during pregnancy,” Young-Wolff told ishonest. “Marijuana can cross the placenta and it has the potential to impact brain development in prenatally exposed children.”

Sufficient evidence has linked prenatal marijuana use and lower offspring birth weight, and limited research shows a correlation with some developmental delays or difficulties with executive functioning in the child, such as the child having issues with impulse control and attention.

Getting data on health effects are limited, Young-Wolff said. Some women may not want to share with their doctors that they use marijuana. Some studies have data but it’s self-reported.

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Studies do show that pregnant marijuana users often use other drugs during pregnancy, and it’s challenging to distinguish health risks specific to marijuana use. Additionally, information on the effects of marijuana based on how it’s used — smoking versus vaping or ingesting edibles — is lacking.

Still, leading medical associations are clear about their stance on pregnant women using cannabis. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) indicates that there are no approved indications or recommendations regarding prenatal marijuana use.

ACOG recommends that doctors screen for marijuana use in pregnant women and advise against it. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using marijuana while pregnant or breastfeeding.

A 2017 report in JAMA covering impacts of marijuana use during pregnancy said that doctors who recommend medical marijuana should be mindful about the possible risks of marijuana use during pregnancy and shouldn’t recommend the drug in pregnant women.

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While some doctors who prescribe medical marijuana may adhere to those suggestions, Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana thinks that much of the marijuana industry is trying to push the drug on pregnant women.

“Unfortunately, the marijuana industry continues to peddle a lie that their superstrength THC is somehow good for pregnant women,” he said. He believes doctors are aware of the dangers to women, which is why many recommend against using it.

“This phenomenon is part of a wider story: The pot industry is trying to convince America they have a miracle drug — one that can fill state coffers, end the opioid crisis, cure cancer, rid streets of violent cartels, and, now, help pregnant women,” he said. “It is Big Tobacco all over again.”

Quitting a drug

Regardless of when or why women begin using marijuana, they can take steps to stop using it. Trying to stop cold turkey may cause mild withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and cravings.

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Current users should speak with their doctors, as programs have been effective in helping women discontinue drug use — even if they only choose to do so until they give birth.

The bottom line

A new study found that cannabis use among pregnant women has gone up from 3 to 5 percent, even as alcohol and cigarette use has gone down.

Ultimately, more research is needed to understand the effects of marijuana on moms and babies, Agrawal said. But it’s known that the psychoactive components in cannabis do reach the developing baby through the placental barrier, so no amount of cannabis — or alcohol, tobacco, or other illicit drugs — is considered safe during pregnancy.

In addition to avoiding marijuana during pregnancy, women should also not use it while breastfeeding.

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