The obvious answer to the question is “Yes, of course you can” but should you? What are the effects of smoking weed while pregnant? Will the fetus be affected? What are the health risks for the mother? What will happen if you smoke weed while pregnant?
In October 2017, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published the following advice: “Before pregnancy and in early pregnancy, all women should be asked about their use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, including marijuana and other medications used for nonmedical reasons. Women reporting marijuana use should be counseled about concerns regarding potential adverse health consequences of continued use during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy should be encouraged to discontinue marijuana use. Pregnant women or women contemplating pregnancy should be encouraged to discontinue use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in favor of an alternative therapy for which there are better pregnancy-specific safety data. There are insufficient data to evaluate the effects of marijuana use on infants during lactation and breastfeeding, and in the absence of such data, marijuana use is discouraged.”
That’s strong language coming from one of the most respected women’s health care organizations. Sure, some of it is precautionary due to a lack of knowledge of the effects of smoking marijuana while pregnant but there is enough evidence to suggest that it probably isn’t the best idea. Prenatal marijuana use has been linked to lower birth weights in children and there is some indication of a correlation between smoking pot when pregnant and having children with developmental delays or difficulties with core functioning. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis – can cross the placenta to reach the fetus and potentially harm brain development and birth weight. THC has also been found in breast milk of regular cannabis users.
Since THC affects all types of processes in the human body – from heart rate to brain function – the effects of smoking weed while pregnant can continue to impact the lives of children as they develop. Prenatal exposure to marijuana may make it harder for children to learn and could affect their emotions and increase depressive symptoms. THC is stored in fat so the potential for the fetus to be exposed is substantial. It might not just be when the mother is smoking that THC exposure is occurring. Studies have shown that children born to mothers who smoked exhibited a decreased ability to understand concepts in listening and reading. Older children exposed to THC in utero were less able to focus and more impulsive. Children in their early teens had lower scores in reading, math and spelling. Older teens have been found to do worse in school, have delinquency problems and continue to be hyperactive, impulsive and less attentive.
An Australian study of over 400,000 live births reported a higher risk for neonatal intensive care admission for newborns that were prenatally exposed to marijuana. There were also reports of abnormal responses or behaviors in the newborn period that suggested a type of toxic withdrawal. In another study, exposed newborns were “more irritable and less responsive to calming, cried more during the examination and exhibited more jitteriness and startles than the non-exposed neonates.” How marijuana might cause those problems is not known but one theory suggests that THC might interfere with the formation of nerve cells and circuits in the brain during fetal development. It is important to note that the children in these studies most likely had prenatal exposure to other drugs or struggles with poverty and other life challenges, making it difficult to know that the findings are solely due to prenatal marijuana exposure.
Why Do Some Women Smoke Pot During Pregnancy?
Let’s face it, carrying a child is not easy and marijuana can help a mother during pregnancy in several different ways. Many suffer morning sickness with some reports claiming that over 85% suffer some type of nausea and/or vomiting during pregnancy. Cannabis contains cannabinoids that assist the body in preventing an upset stomach and the accompanying feelings of nausea. As the baby grows prior to birth the amount of physical pain increases. Smoking pot can help with immediate pain reduction and reduce the chronic pain that pregnant women often suffer. In a 2014 survey of low-income mothers on federal nutrition assistance in Colorado, the most common reasons women reported smoking weed while pregnant were pain, depression, anxiety, stress, nausea and vomiting.
Weed continues to be more prevalent and available across the country and as a result, the rate of women who are smoking cannabis while pregnant is rising. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that from 2002 to 2014, the prevalence of self-reported, past-month marijuana use among adult pregnant women in the U.S. increased from 2.4% to 3.9%. This might seem like a very small increase but as more states adopt lenient laws for cannabis, it can only be expected to rise.
Even though studies on the effects of smoking weed while pregnant are difficult because clinical trials are not possible, the women participating in the research might lie about if or how much they smoke or also be using tobacco, there is enough evidence to suggest that marijuana could have an impact on the pregnancy and the child. Asking women to volunteer information about drug use, which they may fear disclosing even in a confidential setting, inherently makes it difficult to know how frequently they are using cannabis. What we do know is that pregnant women are using marijuana at increased rates and the repercussions of that remain largely unknown. The changing societal view on cannabis does not change the core fact that the developing embryo (and fetus) is dependent on the mother for not only oxygen but nutrients and a fine balance of hormones, chemicals and compounds to grow normally and healthy. The disruption of the normal fetal environment puts the pregnancy at risk in the short-term and may possibly have long term effects for the child.