When I was a student nurse, I spent two weeks in a maternity ward where I was assigned to one expectant mother to care for. She was 37 and having her fifth child. During the pregnancy, she developed hyperemesis gravidarum, a nausea so severe that it can lead to electrolyte imbalances that can be life-threatening to the fetus. This mother chose to use cannabis to treat the hyperemesis. It worked very well without any of the side effects of other medications commonly used to treat it.
As it was standard operating procedure at the hospital I was interning at, she underwent a drug screen when she came to the hospital for delivery. Not surprisingly she tested positive for cannabis. As a consequence, she was investigated by Children’s Protective Services, a note was put in her chart of child endangerment and after her baby was born (weighing over seven pounds), she was not allowed to breastfeed and was separated from her baby who was placed in neonatal intensive care unit where the baby was fed formula.
Cannabis use during pregnancy to treat nausea, pain and depression is far safer to both mother and child than any of the medications that are given to women to treat those conditions during pregnancy. Reefer madness and genuflecting to law enforcement drove health care professionals to claim that cannabis is a danger to both the fetus and the baby and that more research has to be done. Until then the horrors experienced by my patients, the 37-year-old mother and her baby, are par for the course.
Finally, the research has been done. Not only does it document that there is no harm from a mother’s use of cannabis, it also debunked the poor methodology of previous research papers which purported to show severe negative consequences to the child.
Published in the October 2016 issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, the medical review utilized research findings from 31 previous studies that interviewed over 132,000 pregnant women. Earlier studies concluded that cannabis use during pregnancy resulted in a greater likelihood of having a preterm birth or a baby with low birth weight.
The new research found that the babies of the 7,800 women who only used cannabis during pregnancy were no more likely to suffer preterm birth or low birth weight babies than the 124,000 women who reported no cannabis use.
The new research demonstrated that the previous studies were deficient as they did not consider tobacco smoking separate from cannabis smoking. Utilizing research protocols that separated those who only used cannabis from those who used cannabis and tobacco, the researchers found that the women who only used cannabis did not have an increase for preterm birth or a low birth weight baby.
Those who used both cannabis and tobacco suffered an 85 percent increased risk of having preterm birth or low birth weight babies. Cannabis only did not produce those results—it was the tobacco. It has been long known that tobacco use during pregnancy is detrimental to the fetus and the same is even truer for alcohol, yet no one seems to be demanding the prohibition of these substances in the name of fetal health.
Opioids used during pregnancy to treat pain can result in babies having spina bifida (neural defect), hydrocephaly (fluid in the brain), congenital heart defects and other deforming and life threatening problems. Anti-depressants, especially SSRIs like Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft, have been demonstrated to produce autism spectrum, developmental disorders and birth defects in babies.
Complicating the picture is that neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) occurs when a baby is exposed to a drug in the womb before birth and then goes through withdrawal from the drug after birth. NAS is most often the result of a pregnant woman taking opioids.
Rather than discouraging women from using cannabis during pregnancy, doctors should be encouraging women to use cannabis in place of the far more dangerous drugs they are given during pregnancy to treat pain, depression and insomnia. This outdated and anachronistic anti-cannabis policy continues to negatively impact the lives of millions of expectant mothers and their soon to be born children.