Marijuana in pregnancy remains taboo — but does the science justify mothers getting felony convictions for a few puffs?
When I was pregnant with my first child (an unplanned pregnancy), one of my first questions for the doctor was: “Could smoking marijuana before I knew I was pregnant have harmed my baby?” His reply was simply: “No, it’s harmless.”
I was relieved, but wanted to know more so I read a lot of literature on weed and pregnancy. Weighing decades of research, it’s fairly safe to say that marijuana during pregnancy has very little to no effect on the developing fetus.
Unfortunately, child welfare laws in many states do not agree. Some states equate smoking marijuana while pregnant — whether to alleviate nausea, vomiting, stress or depression — with felony child neglect or abuse.
Given that marijuana is the most widely used drug by women of child-bearing age, and the potential for women to use marijuana without knowing they’re pregnant, this is a women’s rights issue. Why should a woman surrender autonomy over her body, her children and her approach to motherhood to civil authorities, whether she uses cannabis or not?
Evidence Strongly Suggests Marijuana Is Harmless During Pregnancy
One of the best-known research studies on marijuana use during pregnancy was conducted by Dr. Melanie Dreher in Jamaica. Dreher is a respected field researcher who served as Dean of the University of Iowa College of Nursing and on the Board of Directors for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. For her 1980s longitudinal study on prenatal marijuana exposure, Dreher matched 30 cannabis-using pregnant women with 30 non-users, attempting to control for age and socio-economic status.
The amount these women used was considerable. Light users smoked up to 10 spliffs per week, moderate users up to 20, and heavy users indulged in up to 70 spliffs per week — 10 large joints per day. After evaluating the children at 3 days old, one month old, four years old, and five years old, Dreher found no adverse effects among the marijuana-exposed group, even with the babies of heavy users.
In fact, at the one-month evaluation, the children of mothers who smoked pot performed better on every variable studied, and were less prone to stress-related anxiety — findings Dreher attributed to the higher social standing of the moms who could afford ganja.
Dreher’s study is significant because it is one of the few that followed babies of mothers who used only marijuana during pregnancy — and not alcohol or tobacco, toxins that are known to affect the fetus when taken in large quantities. Dreher intended to follow the children throughout their schooling, but her research funding was cut off after the five-year follow-up.
Below is a video of Dreher discussing her research findings (article continues after video):
Other studies conducted on pot use during pregnancy have failed to come up with consistent findings demonstrating that marijuana harms the fetus. We’ve known for decades that marijuana is non-teratogenic (meaning it doesn’t cause birth defects). Dr. Peter Fried, a researcher at the University of Montreal, has conducted studies on prenatal marijuana exposure since the 1980s, finding that marijuana use is not associated with increased miscarriage rates, neonatal complications or major or minor physical abnormalities.
Fried reported one potentially adverse effect that appeared when the subjects were 3 years of age — what he described as a slight gap in “executive function.” The differences he found were limited to two subsets of full-scale intelligence tests. While marijuana exposure did not impact the childrens’ overall IQ scores, Fried said he found subtle differences in memory and abstract-reasoning of marijuana-exposed children at 3 years of age. However, the differences were no longer apparent when the children were 5 and 6 years old, with some differences reportedly reappearing at ages 9 through 12.
A study published in 1994 in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology similarly reported lower intelligence scores among 3-year-olds who were exposed to marijuana in utero.
However, two details suggest that perceived differences were not likely due to marijuana exposure. First, marijuana exposure was not associated with significant IQ differences among the children who attended preschool or daycare, demonstrating that lack of exposure to early education caused the lower scores, not the mom’s marijuana use.
Among the children who did score lower, the frequency or quantity of the mothers’ marijuana use did not affect outcomes, further suggesting that other factors — and not marijuana — explained any differences.
Another study, done on monkeys, showed that while THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) crosses the placenta, no THC metabolite was found in fetal plasma or tissue. Thus, the baby’s body does not appear to “metabolize” the THC, meaning that babies of pot-smoking moms are probably not “getting high.”
Other studies, like the one suggesting a link between marijuana exposure and childhood cancer, have been debunked. Mothering Magazine has a nice rundown of a variety of research.
Using marijuana during pregnancy, at best, amounts to a hypothetical danger, in the same way that eating listeria in sliced turkey or drinking caffeine is a hypothetical danger. Rather, home environment and preschool exposure are the largest determining factors in a child’s intellectual performance.
Dreher, who conducted the Jamaican research, has said:
“We can’t conclude that there is necessarily no impact from prenatal ganja use, but we can conclude that the child who attends basic school regularly, is provided with a variety of stimulating experiences at home, who is encouraged to show mature behavior, has a profoundly better chance of performing at a higher level on the skills measured by the McCarthy scale, whether or not his or her mother used ganja during pregnancy.”
Unjustly, Women Get Felony Convictions for Using Pot during Pregnancy
The illegality of marijuana, even among pregnant women, eschews all reason. A pregnant woman’s pot use remains marginalized and criminalized, even though no penalties exist for smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol while pregnant.
It’s interesting to consider, alongside mixed marijuana findings, that research has suggested that many things pregnant women experience can harm their fetuses.
For instance, consuming pesticides through food seems to result in earlier delivery and lower birth weight. Prolonged ultrasounds, as well as diet soda, have been associated with brain damage. Maternal stress has been linked with “permanent changes in neuroendocrine regulation and behavior in offspring.”
Still, the consequences a mother faces if caught smoking marijuana can wreck a family’s life. According to a 2000 report, 12 states have criminal neglect laws that apply to pregnant women who smoke marijuana — and they are enforced.
For example, in 2004, a Texas mother was sentenced on felony charges for admitting that she had occasionally smoked marijuana to cope with morning sickness.
In 2012 in Florida, a 22-year-old woman was arrested on a felony child-neglect charge for admitting to smoking marijuana during pregnancy.
In 2009, a mother in South Carolina was prosecuted for child abuse for using marijuana during pregnancy. During the trial, three medical experts testified that there was no evidence of any adverse physiological, emotional, or mental effects from prenatal marijuana use. One of those experts was Dr. Fried, the Canadian researcher mentioned above who reported the babies of moms who smoke marijuana showed deficits in “executive function” at three years of age (but not in kindergarten).
In this case, Fried told the court: “… to characterize an infant born to a woman who used marijuana during pregnancy as ‘physically abused’ and/or neglected is contrary to all scientific evidence. The use of marijuana during pregnancy has not been shown by any objective research to result in abuse or neglect.”
In addition to Texas, Florida and South Carolina, the other states that address substance use in pregnancy in child welfare laws are Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Maryland, Nevada, Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois. As of 2000, five other states required hospitals to report positive drug screens to authorities: Arizona, Michigan, Utah, Massachusetts and Iowa.
Testing and reporting still takes place even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that involuntary drug testing and reporting on pregnant women violates their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
The issue is further complicated by the possibility of a mother falsely testing positive. A University of North Carolina study found that marijuana screens of newborns commonly result in false positives, with the positive THC readings due to exposure to baby soap.
It’s Time for Marijuana Law to Match Reality
Some people will read this post and think: “Why would anyone risk using marijuana during pregnancy?” or “Can’t you just stop for nine months for the good of your baby?” A counter-question may be: “Why lay blame or guilt on someone for a choice that science says is reasonably safe — at least as safe as dozens of other things pregnant women consume?”
In my eyes, judging a mother for smoking marijuana is tantamount to judging a woman who formula-feeds rather than breastfeeds — because the research on that topic is clear.
I am certainly not advocating for unchecked recreational drug use among pregnant moms. First, marijuana is a different than other “drugs” — it’s a natural, non-toxic, non-addictive, non-lethal substance with numerous medicinal properties.
Secondly, marijuana can be consumed without smoking it — through vaporizers, tinctures, or food — to allay any concerns about smoking in general. Also, frequency and quantity factor in.
Motherhood is accompanied by thousands of choices and lots of built-in guilt. Each woman should have the freedom to decide what works best for her life and her family, without fear of reprisal from people who are uninformed — or who have no idea what it’s like to walk in her shoes.
And even people who would never touch marijuana, pregnant or not, have to admit that an outrageous and unjust disconnect exists between the reality/science of marijuana use and the consequences society has created — legal consequences that are much more harmful to mother, child, and family than the marijuana use itself.
To further open up the debate, I leave you with the heartbreaking case of Alexandria Hill, the 2-year old in Texas who was allegedly beaten to death while in foster care. She died because the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services charged her parents with “neglectful supervision” and removed her from their home — simply because they smoked a little pot after Alexandria was asleep.
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