Science, Now + Beyond

More pregnant women are using pot in America – but is it actually safe?

More U.S. women are using marijuana during pregnancy than in previous years to treat nausea and morning sickness, a new study suggests.

Whatever your opinion on the recreational or medical uses of marijuana, whether you’re against all types of pot use or spent most of 2016 advocating for the legalization of pot in the United States, the truth is that it has some confirmed health benefits. There are women who continue to smoke, vape, or eat marijuana when pregnant, or start for the very first time. 

Women who report using weed in pregnancy claim to need it for quelling symptoms like nausea, sciatica, and pain. They are not using it to get high or for fun. They are using it because many of them experience debilitating sickness or pain. 

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the compound in cannabis that gets you high. It’s a “psychoactive ingredient” and works on a couple levels in the brain and body. Many doctors prescribe pot to patients with chronic pain because THC in cannabinoids helps block the specific pathways taken by chronic pain better than opiates. Opiates are used to address sharp, short-term pain, which takes a different pathway to the brain than long-term chronic pain. 

A federal survey that was published in December 2016 showed that 4% of mothers admitted to using pot while pregnant. Young mothers (18 to 25-year-olds) had higher rates than older mothers: closer to 8% of pregnant women said they had ingested weed in one form or another in the past month.

Pregnant women who smoke weed trust its naturalness over prescribed pills

Studies have shown that THC affects the brain development of fetuses, especially when marijuana is smoked in the first trimester of pregnancy. There is a risk that the potent compound can cross through the placenta and reach the developing fetus. When this happens, there is increased risk in decreased birth weight and stunted brain development and cognition.

Another long-term study followed children whose mothers admitted to smoking pot while pregnant and found that some kids faced more challenges in elementary school with subjects like reading and arithmetic. There seems to be correlation, but not causation. With so many societal, familial, and genetic factors at play in raising and educating children, it is hard to pinpoint causes for behavior and proficiency at a young age.

Women use pot to quell symptoms of pain and nausea

Because it is a plant, however, mothers are attracted to the naturalness of cannabinoids. Instead of taking medication to prevent morning sickness or debilitating nausea, some mothers choose marijuana, which they feel is less synthetic and must therefore be better for their pregnancies. It is the most commonly used drug during pregnancy, and its use is increasing.

Doctors and governmental agencies seem to have myriad opinions about this subject. Some choose not to contribute to the conversation at all, avoiding scare tactics and telling pregnant women what is and is not good for their bodies. Others caution strongly against all recreational and medicinal use of marijuana.

The evidence is quite weak overall.

The conclusions seem to be that because of potential risk, pot should be avoided during pregnancy much like other drugs and alcohol should be avoided. Excessive use, especially, can potentially adversely affect a fetus. Where there is any danger of exposing a fetus to harmful substances that could impede development, most doctors will caution women to avoid using them, just in case.