We have all seen the warning labels, or at least understand the risks of the dangers of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. With the influx of recreational marijuana laws being passed new regulations by the American Medical Association (AMA) are being proposed which would require written warnings on medical and recreational marijuana products along with posted signs at medical and retail cannabis locations. This has created some discourse about whether or not cannabis is detrimental to a pregnant woman or her unborn child and if it could be safely used to medicate and replace other harmful prescription drugs for things like depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and even nausea.
Testing the Effects of Cannabis in Utero
Unfortunately, it has been close to impossible to get permission to conduct a trial that would procure the information needed without knowingly exposing pregnant mothers and the unborn child to cannabis. Interestingly enough, the same can be said for the current prescription meds that professionals are prescribing to pregnant mothers. There has been very little research on the effects of these medications on the unborn child and what research has been done is, as expected, extremely polarized.
Unlike the current prescription meds, cannabis is illegal and in legal states mothers who openly admit to consuming cannabis run the risk of losing custody of their child and incarceration. There are many other factors that attempted studies fail to control, like the mother’s use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs leading to misinformation and a continuation of the perpetual demonization of cannabis.
Historically, it hasn’t always been this way. Dr. Ethan Russo’s book, “Cannabis Treatments in Obstetrics and Gynecology: A Historical Review” addresses how cannabis flowers and seeds were used to prevent miscarriages, induce contractions, and reduce the risk of postpartum hemorrhaging in Chinese and Persian cultures. This was also common in African, Indian and Asian cultures, with Jamaica’s Rastafarian women treating nausea and increasing appetite during pregnancy with ganja believed to offer medical and spiritual benefits. This normalization made Jamaican woman the prime patients for a study on the effects of marijuana on children exposed to cannabis in utero.
Dr. Dreher conducted a study in 1994 that is still considered one of the most accurate studies done on testing cannabis effects in utero. The study took place within a population that consumes marijuana heavily and other substances were controlled for. Her study, among others, told us what many women already knew, that there is no significant or physiological differences in newborns of heavy marijuana using mothers. The stigma and legality of marijuana has led many mothers who are seeking refuge from any number of ailments (nausea, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, aches and pains, hyperemesis gravidarum, etc.) to turn to cannabis in secret.
Cannabis treats Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG)
One of the women who has been vocal about her own experience using cannabis to alleviate a sometimes life threatening and painful condition during pregnancy is, in fact, a doctor. Dr. Wei-Ni Lin Curry suffered from Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) a potentially life-threatening condition that causes severe nausea and vomiting, malnutrition and weight loss during pregnancy. Curry recounted her experience:
“Within two weeks of my daughter’s conception, I became desperately nauseated and vomited throughout the day and night. … I vomited bile of every shade, and soon began retching up blood. … I felt so helpless and distraught that I went to the abortion clinic twice, but both times I left without going through with the procedure. Finally, I decided to try medical cannabis. Just one to two little puffs at night, and if I needed it in the morning, resulted in an entire day of wellness. I went from not eating, not drinking, not functioning, and continually vomiting and bleeding from two orifices to being completely cured. Not only did the cannabis save my [life] during the duration of my hyperemesis, it saved the life of the child within my womb.”
Clearly this is more than simple “morning sickness” (which should also be called life sickness because it also lasts all day for many women). This is a huge women’s health issue that is not getting the attention it deserves. Several of the women’s accounts of their experiences with HG in Curry’s “Hyperemesis Gravidarum and Clinical Cannabis: To Eat or Not to Eat?” plainly depicts the struggle for many women to be heard during arguably the most stressful times of their lives. Curry distinctly vocalized her grievances with the current indifferent and negligent treatment and care for those in need of herbal care. Her shock at the government keeping “valuable medicine from so many ailing women” that her studies found, does not harm the fetus “but simply offers the HG mother the chance to eat, drink, function normally and experience the positive pregnancy she deserves.”
With the approval rating of cannabis on the rise, mothers and doctors alike are becoming much more open to the idea of cannabis being medically beneficial. Scientists are beginning to understand the role of endocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system in reproduction, including their role in prenatal and postnatal development. Ultimately, to be able to remove the stigma and shaming of mothers who turn to cannabis there is still much research that needs to be done on the health implications of maternal pot smoking. Considering the medical hegemony of the pharmaceutical companies, it would seem that their lack of interest in utilizing the medicinal properties of marijuana is because they are more concerned with their profit margins then prioritizing the best interests of those who are pregnant.