How does cannabis use to affect a pregnant woman’s baby?
Current drug education literature still maintains that genetic damage is passed on by female cannabis users to their unborn children. This misinformation stems from unsubstantiated claims dating back to the late 1960s when warnings that cannabis-caused birth defects were falsely predicted. Despite later studies disproving this, sponsored agencies continue to claim this as fact, citing studies carried out on rodents, where large doses of THC administered at specific times during pregnancy were shown to be detrimental. Because the effects of drugs on fetal development differ substantially across species, these findings are of no real relevance to humans, and studies with primates show no evidence of fetal harm from cannabis use. In one case, researchers exposed chimpanzees to high doses of THC for up to 152 days and found no resultant change in the sexual behavior, fertility, or health of their offspring.
Research on human children examining the effects of prenatal exposure to cannabis has found no detrimental indications in cannabis-exposed babies in terms of health, temperament, personality, sleeping patterns, eating habits, psycho-motor ability, physical development, or mental functioning. Other studies indicate that babies benefit from exposure to cannabinoids whilst in the womb. However, when researchers looked at black and Caucasian children separately, they found slightly lower scores on two subscales of the IQ test. In neither case did the frequency or quantity of the mothers’ cannabis use affect the outcomes. This makes it extremely unlikely that they were caused by cannabis use. Nevertheless, this study is now cited as evidence that using cannabis during pregnancy impairs the intellectual capacity of children.
Melanie Dreher, RN, Ph.D., FAAN, coauthor of Women and Cannabis: Medicine, Science, and Sociology, is the Dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing and also holds the post of Associate Director for the University’s Department of Nursing and Patient Services. She has honor degrees in nursing, anthropology, and philosophy, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. Alongside her achievements as a widely published researcher, writer, and college administrator, Dreher is also a professor and lecturer at several institutions, including the University of the West Indies. She recently served as president of the 120,000-member Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honor Society and is an internationally well-respected academic.
Dreher has carried out an extensive study of pregnant women in Jamaica, which was later published in the American Journal of Pediatrics (1994) indicating that cannabis was being used in a cultural and medical context as a way to relieve morning sickness or nausea, prevent depression and fatigue, and to improve appetite. Dreher acknowledges that such use is discouraged at Jamaican state prenatal clinics, but found that many women still consider cannabis to hold therapeutic benefits to both themselves and their unborn children. She studied a cross-section of women who both used and abstained from cannabis during their pregnancy and then examined the babies one year after birth.
Children of the women who smoked cannabis regularly during pregnancy were more socially skilled
During the 30-day test period, it was expected that there would be a marked difference in the babies, specifically about birth weight and neurological tests. Unexpectedly, it was discovered that children of the women who smoked cannabis regularly during pregnancy were more socially skilled, had better organization skills and improved sleeping patterns, were less prone to stress-related anxiety, and made eye contact more readily. Those infants who had been most heavily exposed to cannabinoids indicated that:
The quality of their alertness was higher.
Motor and autonomic systems were more robust. They were inclined to be less irritable. They were less likely to demonstrate any imbalance of tone. They required less examiner facilitation to become organized. They displayed better self-regulation.
They were more socially responsible and autonomically stable.
Dr. Dreher continues to argue against the restrictions placed on academics and scientists about research concerning cannabinoid use during pregnancy, and objects strongly to how the public is deliberately misinformed. Furthermore, because women often face severe legal sanctions, including loss of custody, for admitting to cannabis use during pregnancy, most mothers refuse to divulge such information. Dreher recently wrote of how she had carried out an Internet search regarding pregnancy and cannabis. Typical of the disinformation she found was an article entitled, “Exposure to marijuana in the womb may harm your fetus [sic] brain.” The article stated, “Over the past decade several studies have linked behavior problems and lower IQ scores in children to prenatal use of marijuana.” This statement is both inaccurate and untrue.
Human breast milk contains an abundance of cannabinoids
Several major scientific studies have found that human breast milk naturally contains an abundance of the same cannabinoids found in cannabis, and one of its functions is to protect the cells against viruses, harmful bacteria, cancer, and other malignancies. It has also been found that without these cannabinoids in breast milk, babies would not incline to eat and promote growth. A study on the endocannabinoid receptor system published in the European Journal of Pharmacology (2004) states:
“Endocannabinoids have been detected in maternal milk and activation of CB1 (cannabinoid receptor type 1) receptors appears to be critical for milk sucking by apparently activating oral-motor musculature.”
A survey conducted by the directors of the Vancouver Island
Compassion Society and the BC Compassion Club, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, reported that cannabis is therapeutic in the treatment of both morning sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum (a severe form of morning sickness, causing severe nausea and/or vomiting that prevents adequate intake of food and fluids). Of the 84 women who responded to the anonymous questionnaire, almost half said that they had used cannabis intermittently during their pregnancy to treat symptoms of vomiting, nausea, and appetite
loss. Of these, 92% said that cannabis was “effective or extremely effective” in combating their symptoms and whilst most women chose to self-administer cannabis by smoking, 31% also reported benefit from consuming canna-edibles, and 8% reported using cannabis-based oils or tinctures. It is not recommended that any form of tobacco be used during pregnancy.