Cannabis During Pregnancy: What Are the Risks?

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends against the use of Cannabis during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They advise doctors to screen pregnant women for cannabis use and encourage users to quit, regardless of the reasons why the drug is being used.

But why is that, and how dangerous is Marijuana for mothers and babies, really? Well, we can give you the answer to the second question right now: we don’t know how dangerous it is. There isn’t sufficient data about the subject. As for the first question, the answer there is very complicated.

pregnant woman

The difficulty in studying marijuana

Studying the effects of cannabis is the US is hard, and so is trying to figure out how many women are using the substance during pregnancy. Right now, the United States still classifies cannabis as a schedule 1 substance, its highest risk category. According to the guidelines, schedule 1 substances have the following characteristics:

1 – The drug or other substance has high abuse potential.

2 – The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.

3 – The drug or other substance lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

For reference, Heroin is schedule 1. Cocaine and methamphetamine are one level below, classified as schedule 2. Needless to say, the fact that cannabis is still schedule 1 is a subject of many controversies. But while it remains in that category, studying the effects of cannabis requires that scientists jump through a large number of legal hoops, which slow down studies and dissuades professionals from engaging with this field of research to begin with.

Meanwhile, due in part to that classification, cannabis use during pregnancy is enough reason to file a child abuse or neglect report in many US states, which leaves mothers afraid to even talk about the subject. Since many studies rely on self-reported use of marijuana, that fear makes it even hard to get solid data about the use of the drug, especially if you are trying to figure out what percentage of pregnant women are using cannabis.

There is, however, one state where we can find good numbers regarding this issue: California.

Pregnant cannabis use is on the rise

Cannabis has been legal for medical use in California since 1996, and it became legal for recreational use in 2016. The state is also home to Kaiser Permanente Northern California, the only large health care system in the US that screens all pregnant women for prenatal cannabis consumption through the use of urine tests and self-reports.

According to their data, the percentage of pregnant women who use cannabis almost doubled between 2009 and 2016 — growing from 4% to 7%. The numbers are higher among younger patients: it was 22% for women under the age of 18, and 19% for women aged 18 to 24.

With the recent wave of legalizations across the country, it’s no surprise that the number of women using it is on the rise. Especially when you consider that many dispensaries are marketing their products to pregnant women as a treatment for morning sickness. One study that focused on Colorado cannabis dispensaries found that 69% of them offered products to treat morning sickness, and 36% of them told women the drug is safe to use during pregnancy.

Is cannabis safe for pregnant women?

It might not be safe, but no one knows for certain. What is certain is that cannabis use does affect the baby. It’s been established since the ‘80s that THC — the active ingredient in Cannabis responsible for getting people high — can cross the placenta and reach the fetus. And more recent studies have found that THC is also secreted in breast milk up to six days after the last use of the drug.

That knowledge was the main reason behind the recommendation against its use made by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and many other healthcare specialists. However, while we do know that THC reaches the baby, we don’t know if it has a negative effect — or even if it has any effect at all.

There is one risk that has been firmly identified: cannabis use has been linked to babies having lower birth weights. However, most research on cannabis use looks at the effect of smoking the herb. And as the researchers pointed out, smoking any substance increases the amount of carbon monoxide in the blood, which reduces the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. As a result, the baby gets fewer nutrients, which can lead to lower birth weights.

So the lower birth weight is more likely an effect of smoking in general, rather than an effect of THC or anything cannabis-specific. Indeed, the researchers pointed out that their cannabis birth weight findings were consistent with the effects of cigarette smoking on fetuses.

In other words, you should never smoke during pregnancy, no matter what you are smoking. However, there are many other ways to consume cannabis and THC. What are you supposed to do about those?

Cannabis safety recommendations

Mothers and gestating women are under constant social pressure and supervision. It seems everyone is always looking for an excuse to shame mothers and their habits, to stand as guardians for their unborn babies. Those groups will, of course, scowl at you for even thinking of using anything cannabis-related during pregnancy.

However, as long we don’t know the effects of THC on infants, two possibilities remain open: it’s either harmful or it’s not. With the addendum that if THC was extremely harmful to babies, we would have already noticed by now. Therefore, any negative effects — if they exist — are likely long term and subtle in nature.

Meanwhile, the effects of medical cannabis and THC on mothers is very much known. It helps with morning sickness, it helps with chronic pain, it helps with cancer treatments. It’s also a treatment for PTSD and chronic anxiety — many women who served in the military or suffered abuse find themselves in a situation where cannabis doesn’t just help them relax, it allows them to function. A situation where the alternative to smoking weed is taking dozens of pills a day and still feeling miserable.

Do not smoke marijuana while pregnant. As stated above, smoking anything during pregnancy is bad for the baby, so it’s best to stick to edibles and other forms of consumption. And since the safety status of the drug isn’t certain, if you use cannabis purely for recreational purposes, it might be wise to stop during your pregnancy.

However, if you use cannabis for medical purposes, then you have to measure your options and access the risk yourself because the science is not in yet. Look at your options carefully; it may very well be the case that cannabis is a safer alternative than the pharmaceuticals you would have to use as a replacement. You could also experiment with CBD from suppliers like CBD51, as it can give you some of the benefits of Marijuana without you having to consume potentially risky THC.

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