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Every so often an article appears about cannabis, pregnancy and babies born with brain changes, lower birth weight or cognitive disorders. Since we know that a mother’s blood co-mingles with that of her fetus, the topic of in utero development and cannabis use is not to be taken lightly.

The Science 

The most prevalent cannabinoids found in cannabis, THC and CBD, are bioidentical to two chemicals produced by the human brain. These “endocannabinoids” are active in the fetal brain and they support neuron growth. Using cannabis does add additional cannabinoids into the equation, perhaps displacing those that occur naturally in the body, but there is no research to date showing that displacing endocannabinoids is problematic. In fact, one study hinting that additional cannabinoids appear to protect one type of neural functioning that is damaged in children with abnormal brain developments, such as autism or fetal alcohol syndrome.

Cannabinoids and human thriving 

The late Dr. Ester Fride, an Israeli neuroscientist who, in the early 2000s,  investigated the ways cannabinoids influence a newborn’s development, showed that without a functioning endocannabinoid system, newborn rats failed to suckle or begin maternal bonding. They died much sooner than babies with functioning endocannabinoid systems. Fride concluded that endocannabinoids are essential to a baby’s ability to thrive.

Before Dr. Fride, in the early 1990s, Dr. Melanie Dreher, the Dean of Nursing at Rush Medical Center in Chicago, traveled to Jamaica to investigate a group of rural Rastafarian women and their infants. These women smoked ganja and drank ganJa tea as a daily health ritual: Without access to modern health care they relied on these homegrown methods to maintain appetite and rest and to beat the nausea during pregnancy. Dreher, who followed 30 women and their babies for five years until the children entered school, found that infants whose moms smoked ganja socialized more quickly, made eye contact more quickly, and were easier to engage than the babies of non-smokers. There were no developmental differences between the groups. In fact, on tests for verbal ability, motor, perceptual and quantitative skills, memory and mood, the kids of ganJa users scored higher.

Some of the newest research focuses on cannabis use and IVF, where knowledge on the impact of cannabinoids on fertility is limited and often contradictory. The results of a recent Canadian study between the groups of users and nonusers provides some reassurance that there are no demonstrable detrimental effects of cannabis consumption on IVF outcomes and early embryonic development. However, since the cohort was a small one, these results need to be validated by a larger study.

The Reality

Women throughout the world have been using cannabis as a natural medicine for thousands of years with no observable harms.  And women today are barraged by information about all the things we shouldn’t do while pregnant.

Dr. Stacy Kerr, a family physician and cannabis educator in Santa Rosa, CA, with the assistance of other researchers and a statistician, examined the research on the topic and found some notable discrepancies with the ways the samples were put together and the extrapolations of the findings. In the studies of babies being born at lower weights, she discovered that all the women surveyed were asked if they had used any psychoactive substances (not specifically cannabis) and were also all from the same socio economic backgrounds at a public hospital. Both factors could have influenced the results. She also points out, crucially, that there was no difference in the Apgar score that measures the 5 key indicators of a baby’s health just after birth. The other frequently quoted study claims that kids of cannabis using moms do less well in life and are slower in school. But this research, according to Kerr, was skewed by factors other than prenatal exposure.

When asked if she would use cannabis while pregnant, Dr. Kerr responded:  “For me it comes back to intent and how you use cannabis medicinally. If I can’t eat or if I’m nauseated or in pain, or if I have a two-year old who’s going crazy and making me so irritable that I’m yelling at the kids and my husband, and if taking a puff relaxes me and makes me nicer then, yes, I’d consider it.”

Clearly, the question of cannabis and pregnancy is yet to be answered. If you are grappling with this question, it will serve you to understand the potential benefits and side effects and decide for yourself. Clearly, everything you put into your system while pregnant can affect your baby. Pregnant women should exercise caution when using any medication or substance.

Do babies born in states with legal marijuana laws have more health problems?

Research led by Angélica Meinhofer, Weill Cornell Medicine,  found that although the proportion of maternal hospitalizations with marijuana use disorder increased by 23% in the first three years after recreational marijuana laws (RMLs) were passed, and slightly larger effects in states authorizing commercial sales of marijuana, the new laws were not associated with changes in newborn health. And, medical marijuana laws had no significant effect on maternal substance use disorder hospitalizations nor on newborn health. In absolute numbers, the findings implied modest or no adverse effects of cannabis policies on the array of perinatal outcomes considered.

From the Journal of Health Economics, 9.25.2021

About Our Editors:

Elana Frankel, chief growth officer at Medical Cannabis Mentor, is the founding editor in chief of Women and Weed magazine and author of the book Women and Weed (Simon and Schuster, 2020). Her byline has also appeared in The Cannigma and WSJ/OffDuty. Elana teaches yoga (200-hour and Lit Yoga trained) as well as meditation and breathwork. She is  a volunteer for the Oregon Cannabis Commission, health equity sub-committee and has worked in a dispensary, learning from soil to shelf. Elana has produced films with Cabin Creek Productions, was the creative director and SVP at One Kings Lane and has contributed to magazines such as Architectural Digest, Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times Magazine and New York Magazine. 

Joe Dolce is the author of Brave New Weed: Adventures into the Uncharted World of Cannabis, which was published to critical acclaim in 2017 and hosts the Brave New Weed podcast, which boasts an international audience of industry experts, rabble rousers and anyone interested in high-minded conversations about the plant and culture surrounding it. He is also is the founder and CEO of the MedicalCannabisMentor.com online education platform, with courses for healthcare practitioners, dispensary personnel and patients.