Pregnancy and Cannabis - What Do We Know?

The main thing that we know is that we don’t really know anything about how cannabis affects unborn babies. Meanwhile, women have been treating a variety of pregnancy symptoms with cannabis for hundreds of years.

Photo by    Leandro Cesar Santana    

Recently it was suggested that as many as 5-15% of Canadian women used cannabis while pregnant. In many cases, as a last resort to try to alleviate otherwise unmanageable symptoms of pregnancy.

What damage, if any, could this cause an unborn child? Let’s look at what the experts have said and what history can tell us.

The Health Warnings

Health Canada warns that cannabis substances can pass from the mother's blood to her fetus and also pass into breast milk, and that this can lead to low birth weight and longer term development effects. “More recent data also identifies a possible association between marijuana use and neonatal intensive care unit admission and stillbirth,” Dr. Torri Metz of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City told Reuters Health.

However, Carl Hart, a psychology professor at Columbia University and expert on drug use and addiction, pointed out to Rolling Stone magazine that available data indicates that marijuana has virtually no impact on babies’ abilities to think, make decisions, and problem solve.

“From what I have seen there have been no demonstrated cognitive impacts,” said Hart. “I can say that with fairly good confidence.” He cites an early ‘90s study that followed 59 children through the first five years of their life; half of them came from mothers who consumed marijuana during pregnancy.  Researchers found “no significant differences in developmental testing outcomes between children of marijuana-using and non-using mothers.” In fact, in the past many studies in the U.S. compared pot-smoking women living at the poverty level with non-consumers who enjoyed a higher standard of living. When researchers corrected for the poverty level by doing the aforementioned cross-cultural study in Jamaica, they found that children of pot-using pregnant women were more well adjusted, better organized, had “more robust motor and autonomic systems,” were less irritable, and were “more rewarding for caregivers.”

Both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Health Canada discourages doctors from prescribing or suggesting the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes while women are trying to conceive, pregnant or nursing their babies. They recommend an abstinence first approach while pregnant and breastfeeding.

Many women dealing with chronic pain issues are prescribed opioids during pregnancy despite the risk still being present with these approved prescription drugs. Opioids can cause premature birth, miscarriage, birth defects, low birth weight and Neonatal abstinence syndrome in babies.

Obviously what we need is a lot of research and education although there are ethical concerns around research such as this. Asking women to self report cannabis use won’t really clear the air either, not so long as women remain under threat of losing their children if they admit to cannabis use. On that note, some would say that the biggest danger in consuming cannabis while pregnant is actually the potential loss of your children if authorities were to deem you neglectful.

Historical Cannabis Use During Pregnancy

Long before cannabis prohibition, women used a variety of herbs including cannabis to treat pregnancy issues and help with pain in childbirth. Ancient Egyptians were said to encourage the use of cannabis to induce contractions. The Ninth Century Persian medical expert Sabur Ibn Sahl noted that the juice of cannabis seeds worked to prevent miscarriage in his Al-Aqrabadhin Al-Saghir. Thirteenth century Italians were said to use cannabis to stimulate breast milk which incidentally should be noted for its high concentrations of cannabinoids.

In 1854, the Dispensatory of the United States acknowledged the use of cannabis to hasten a stalled labor. Subsequently, many doctors in the US and France described their finding successes in using cannabis to speed stalled deliveries because it prompted uterine contractions.

Cannabis has been used for eons to stop uterine hemorrhaging. Everyone from the 1500s Chinese medical experts to 1800s French, American, British and Indian physicians agreed that cannabis was useful for this purpose. When it comes to nausea, anxiety and sleep issues cannabis is well known for providing therapeutic benefit.

The Final Word

We are nowhere near having a final word on cannabis use during pregnancy. Results from various research remain inconclusive and until we have less stigma and more openness we won’t have any definitive answers.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding or planning to become pregnant be sure to check with your doctor before beginning or stopping any drug treatments.