Pregnancy can lead you to make some unorthodox choices: jello for dinner, chocolate ice cream with mustard, mayonnaise on toast. But what should you do if, instead of a late night kitchen raid, you found yourself desperately wanting to smoke a joint?
For an increasing number of women, marijuana is a readily available option when nausea, back pain, or other symptoms become too much to handle.
Is Smoking Pot Safe For Pregnant Women?
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America. Meanwhile, the federal government has kept it on the the DEA’s list of Schedule I controlled substances, which implies it has no proven medicinal benefit and a high risk for abuse.
So what’s going on here? Your granola loving vegan friend thinks smoking weed is the best cure for morning sickness. Meanwhile, you hear about all kinds of risks to your baby associated with smoking weed while pregnant. What should you believe?
This article will shed some light on the subject, while trying to let the facts speak for themselves.
How Many Pregnant Women Actually Smoke Weed?
First it would be helpful to know how widespread of an issue this is.
According to a 2015 study by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) found that between 2-5% of all pregnant women smoke weed.
Among young, urban, and poorer women, a much higher rate of 15-28% is reported.
So, Is That A Lot?
Well, it’s a much higher rate than it used to be. A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study of over 200,000 pregnant women saw an increase from 2.37% to 3.85% from 2002 to 2014.
This spike in usage is huge, although still represents a small percentage of the overall pregnant population. Whenever studies of illegal drug use are performed however, a sizable error from under reporting should be expected.
Imagine your Ob-Gyn just finished lecturing you on the dangers of weed, and how in many states child services intervenes when any drug abuse is suspected. I’m thinking most of you would say absolutely nothing about that time you resorted to smoking a joint after 3 days of constant puking.
So the short answer is, when it comes to total numbers, no one knows for sure. What we do see in the various studies is a clear increase in the last couple decades.
Why the Recent Rapid Increase?
So if federal laws have remained the same, and doctors are still warning against it, why the rise in usage? There are many possible answers, and the truth is probably a mixture of the following.
1) State Laws
As of now 30 states have legalized some form of marijuana, whether that means prescribed medicinal pot or refusing to prosecute over small amounts for recreational use. Of those 30 states, 8 have fully legalized weed and have begun regulating it.
Although the DEA can still arrest users in these “legal” states, most weed smokers feel safe from the law. This has undoubtedly caused a major increase in overall use.
If you’re desperate for relief from some pregnancy symptom and you only have to go to a corner store instead of a shady downtown alley, suddenly weed seems like a whole lot more realistic of an option.
2) The Age Of The Millennial
Today’s youth is no longer opposed to marijuana being a part of legal society.
A Pew Research Center study found that between 2006-2016, those aged 18-35 have shifted dramatically in favor of legalizing weed from 34% up to a stunning 71%.
The women most likely to become pregnant today are also the most tolerant towards weed in the history of our country.
The social stigma of admitting to smoking weed remains, though. Even though millennials are accepting of weed being legal, most are still hesitant to personally use it.
Pictures of friends drinking at Happy Hour are everywhere, but people are afraid that if they post pictures of themselves smoking weed then their jobs or future prospects might be in jeopardy.
Mothers who are looking to smoke weed are more willing to try, but at the same time will keep it a secret.
3) Vaping For Peace Of Mind
For those moms who may want to try weed, but are worried about the effects of smoke on their baby, our current generation has an entirely new option.
Vaping, or vaporizing a substance, avoids the extra byproducts found in smoke.
In the last decade vaping went from an obscure niche habit to a mainstream one in which 9 million Americans partake.
Many vaping devices allow you to carefully control the amounts inhaled.
This easy method for inhaling weed means more of you might give in to the temptation in hopes of relief from pregnancy nausea, back pain, or anxiety.
4) Not Sure? Ask The Internet!
Previous generations asked the same questions about weed. Women have always known a friend that swears it’s harmless, and another who claims it will permanently harm a child.
The Internet may not provide conclusive answers, but what it does incredibly well is provide information.
That means you can look for yourself what studies have been done, and what they concluded.
You can find Facebook groups for Pot Smoking Moms Who Cuss Sometimes, or visit the federal CDC and DEA websites where the dangers are listed.
There’s a saying that goes: when you look on the Internet, you always end up confirming your biases.
But I prefer another saying: don’t mess with a pregnant woman. If they are worried about the safety of their child, they will scour the Web for all the facts until they’re satisfied.
OK, What Are The Facts About Weed And Pregnancy?
Let’s start with the basic questions and talk about what data is available for each of them.
Armed with the facts, you and your doctor can figure out what’s best for you and your baby.
1) Can Weed Actually Affect Your Baby?
Yes, the evidence is clear that THC can readily pass into the placenta and cross the blood brain barrier. After that the evidence gets much more conflicted.
Some women might try to comfort themselves by thinking any weed being inhaled only goes into their lungs.
However, the bond between a mother and their child in the womb is nearly total. Most substances that the mother encounters will find their way to the baby as well.
Another definite health link is that smoking weed may increase the level of carbon monoxide in your body.
One study found that when compared to tobacco smoke, weed smoke has 5 times the level of carbon monoxide and 3 times the level of tar.
Increased carbon monoxide can result in less oxygen getting to your baby.
Of course for those who vape or infuse weed into tea or edibles, these particular concerns can be avoided.
But if your baby is being exposed to THC no matter how it enters the body, then what are the effects?
2) What Harmful Effects Have Studies Found?
A number of studies and sources will tell you a range of possible negative outcomes. They can be grouped into those that happen during pregnancy and other long term effects once your baby is born.
Those in the category of during pregnancy include:
- Lower birth weight
- Increased rate of preterm birth
- Small size at birth (length, head circumference)
- Increased need for NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)
- Increased risk of stillbirth
While this list can be terrifying to expecting mothers, it needs to be noted that there is little to no consistency among the studies. Some find no link to certain effects on the above list, while others are conflicted about the size of the effects.
As to negative outcomes once your baby is born, the list is equally concerning:
- Higher pitched cry as an infant
- Poorer responses to visual stimulus
- Increased trembling when born
- Lower verbal scores later in childhood
Again, these results were found in only some studies, and included those involving animal subjects.
By no means are we trying to diminish the seriousness of any study finding harmful effects due to smoking weed while pregnant, we’re merely stating the relatively small amount of consistent research into this subject.
3) Is There Any Evidence That Weed Is Not Harmful To Use While Pregnant?
There is actually some evidence showing benefits resulting from weed.
In fact, one of the only well controlled studies ever conducted in the field showed net positives.
A group of Jamaican mothers were the basis of a study by Dr. Melanie Dreher back in the 80’s.
What was unique about this study is the culture in which it took place.
Weed is a commonly consumed product in southeastern Jamaica, both for medicinal and spiritual purposes.
The mothers in the study who smoked weed didn’t drink alcohol or smoke tobacco.
The study also controlled other variables as best as they could. All participants were from the same rural village with similar nutrition and neonatal care. The field workers also lived in the area, earning trust and gaining more honest reporting of outcomes.
In the end, there were no statistical differences found in negative outcomes, and the babies whose mothers smoked heavily “had better scores on autonomic stability, quality of alertness, irritability, and self-regulation and were judged to be more rewarding for caregivers.”
Why Such Discrepancy Between The Studies?
The wide differences in outcomes can be attributed to polydrug use, socioeconomic status, and under reporting due to social stigma.
1) Polydrug Use
Pregnant women who smoke weed are also far more likely to drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, and use other types of illegal drugs.
Most studies do not and cannot isolate women who only smoked weed, so any results that they find cannot be directly linked to weed alone.
More experimental research studies need to be done so the well established harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco can be separated from any resulting from weed.
Until then, researchers are left with only vague links and circumstantial evidence about a very important topic.
2) Socioeconomic Status
Factors such as nutrition, stress, anxiety, and others are greatly affected by whether a mother is well off or struggling to pay the bills.
There have been studies clearly linking lower socioeconomic status to increased drug use.
Scientific studies looking at which mothers are smoking weed need to take into account these increased likelihoods of other risk factors being present.
3) Under Reporting Remains A Huge Roadblock
Since most studies on weed are based off correlating confirmed drug use through testing with proven data on the outcomes of children, researchers are getting an incomplete picture.
While scientists are doing their best to get accurate data, this is impossible when mothers are afraid to admit to using weed.
Many mothers who smoke weed will avoid prenatal care altogether to avoid getting tested.
Others who “self medicate” with weed may never be reported, so their babies’ outcomes (good or bad) go unreported as well.
What Do The Experts Say?
Despite conflicting and incomplete evidence, groups such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are clearly opposed.
While they acknowledge the limited scientific evidence proving harm, the underlying message remains that doctors and health experts should be counseling no marijuana use while pregnant.
They also note there is little evidence weed can help with hyperemesis or other pregnancy symptoms except from anecdotal accounts.
If it can affect your baby and the evidence is not clear, the rule is always better safe than sorry.
Are There Traditional Western Medicines Available Instead?
Many if not most medications are not recommended during pregnancy, including such mainstays as:
- Acetaminophen (when used frequently)
- Pepto Bismol
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (Aleve)
Pregnancy is one of the few instances when doctors hesitate to prescribe medications of any kind. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that weed is also strongly discouraged.
What Doctors Do Recommend
Doctors usually recommend that you skip the medication entirely if you can.
Until the past couple hundred years, women handled pregnancy symptoms without the help of any medicine at all.
Massages, meditation, and light exercise are capable of alleviating many issues such as stress, back/body pains, and anxiety.
If you’re pregnant and thinking of trying weed, or any medication, make sure you’ve exhausted all other options – and always, always, always do this with medical approval beforehand.
Diclegis Is Back
There is currently only one FDA approved drug for pregnancy related nausea, and it’s returning to shelves after a long absence.
Diclegis was voluntarily pulled from the market in 1983.
There was never believed to be clear evidence of any harmful side effects, but lawyers saw it as an easy target and began pushing costly litigation claiming that the drug caused all kinds of problems.
After a long review of the facts about Diclegis, the FDA approved it for use again in 2013. Diclegis is basically just an antihistamine combined with vitamin B6.
As for how well it works, the answer is underwhelming. It was found to be only marginally better than a placebo, and causes extreme drowsiness.
For most women, this makes it impractical to use.
Why Do Some Women Choose To Ignore Medical Advice?
Some pregnant women turn to weed only as necessary to relieve symptoms, and resent the implication they are being irresponsible people by doing so.
In fact for those suffering from hyperemesis, or extreme vomiting and nausea, small amounts of weed are sometimes the only thing allowing them to continue working or caring for other children.
It often just comes down to the acceptance or rejection from each woman’s social circle.
If all your friends smoke or eat weed edibles, then you’ll be far more likely to do so yourself.
If your friends are outraged at the thought, then you may be too.
The Law Of The Land
While social acceptance is nice, the real concern for moms is the legal consequences. America’s state laws are in flux right now, but weed remains a Schedule I illegal drug.
Even in states where weed has become legal to use, their child protective services departments may still step in and remove children if initial blood tests reveal any federally illegal substance.
Alabama even goes so far as to jail moms who just gave birth when weed is found in their blood.
Women are often at the mercy of their Ob-Gyn.
Many will simply look the other way or refuse to test mothers after first counseling them.
Here is another area where socioeconomic status plays a role. Affluent mothers are tested and punished far less frequently than poorer women.
To Smoke Or Not To Smoke
So what should you do? Ultimately that will always be a decision for you and your healthcare providers.
Here is a quick recap of the debate so far:
- Greatly increased rate of use
- Inconclusive/insufficient evidence
- Widespread under reporting of usage
- Lack of alternative medications
- Serious legal consequences
Should smoking weed while pregnant be a casual decision? Absolutely not.
Should you never consider it under any circumstances? That wouldn’t be a logical answer either.
We need to come to terms with the fact that weed is rapidly becoming completely accepted by society. Since the number of people who use it are increasing daily, we should focus our efforts on performing detailed scientific studies to help establish better facts.
Under the principle of better safe than sorry, you should consult with your doctor and try all other options before turning to weed.
As to our personal principle of never mess with a pregnant woman, it still holds true, of course. Just make sure before you resort to smoking a joint that you’ve tried covering the basics first, such as scheduling a massage.