California’s 1996 legalization of medicinal marijuana set a trend for the next two decades: a total of 28 out of 50 U.S. states have formed new laws regarding cannabis for medical use or, more recently, recreational use. With the mainstream media’s frequent coverage on weed’s legalization comes a positive shift in societal attitudes towards the once shunned and highly stigmatized drug, allowing room for new questions about when it’s okay to use marijuana.
For expectant mothers eager to curb pregnancy symptoms such as morning sickness, the question is: can I use marijuana during my pregnancy at all? What we know from various scientific studies on maternal marijuana use reveals complicated and often contradictory answers to whether or not mothers who choose to use marijuana in whatever form—edibles, concentrates, etc—are indeed harming themselves and potentially the development of the fetus.
The Rise in Reported Marijuana Use
As most of the U.S. population has known marijuana as an illicit drug for the majority of their lives, it may be hard to fathom that marijuana use has more than doubled between 2001 and 2013 among U.S. adults. Perhaps even more shocking are the studies that report 2–5 percent of women use pot during pregnancy. As the herb becomes more widely accepted medicinally and recreationally throughout the U.S., it is probable that these statistics will increase as a result.
Women who report using pot during their pregnancies often assert that they are not using recklessly or for their own entertainment. Most report their use as an effective method towards treating pregnancy symptoms such as nausea or vomiting. In a recent Canadian study, over 92 percent of the participants rated cannabis as an “extremely effective” or “effective” method for treating morning sickness even though some health professionals argue that there is no scientific evidence that cannabis actually aids in staving off such symptoms.
Kathy (not her real name), who is in the final months of her pregnancy, shared with me that she has had “at least two puffs a day” of marijuana throughout her entire pregnancy. While she claims she hasn’t experienced any severe nausea or vomiting, she does feel that marijuana has helped stabilize her hormones during her pregnancy, allowing her to “be active without feeling sluggish.” Kathy said, “weed decreases the amount of stress and anxiety I feel on a daily basis.” Additionally, she says she has noticed “increased movement” with her son whenever she uses marijuana.
Despite testimonies such as Kathy’s, health professionals recommend that mothers not use marijuana while pregnant as a measure of safety as current evidence on the health risks associated with maternal marijuana use is still inconsistent. These recommendations sound reasonable enough, but for the 1-2 percent of pregnant women diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum, a rare condition during pregnancy that is characterized by severe vomiting, using marijuana may feel like the only option between life or death for their babies and potentially their own lives.
The Effects of Marijuana on the Fetus
Marijuana is taking off with pregnant women as a potential aid in staving off pregnancy symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and the fluctuating hormones many women experience during their pregnancy—even if it has not been scientifically proven as actually treating these symptoms and conditions.
But what about the effects of marijuana on the developing fetus? Studies have shown that marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC, might be able to reach the placenta, potentially harming the fetus’s neurodevelopment. It’s also possible for THC to be found in breast milk; however, there is currently insufficient data to study the effects of marijuana use on infants during breastfeeding.
The American Academy of Pediatrics labels using marijuana while pregnant as prenatal substance abuse, lumping the herb into a category with other substances such as cocaine, nicotine, and alcohol. Yet other studies, such as a 1994 Jamaican study, report that babies exposed to marijuana actually performed better than the babies not exposed prenatally to marijuana.
A Call for More Research
While there has not necessarily been a lack of study on maternal marijuana use and its effects on fetal development, it is clear that further research is still needed to weed out the discrepancies that previous studies have yet to account for—such as mothers who used marijuana but also smoked tobacco while pregnant.
I’m not here to say women should or shouldn’t smoke pot while pregnant, as the science is still inconclusive. But, as marijuana loses its stigma in U.S., now is the time for more discussion and research on maternal marijuana use.