The Highs and the Lows of Marijuana Use in Pregnancy

Nicole F
Calendar icon Last Updated: 09/26/2019
smoking marijuana while pregnant
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Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal substance in the world, by hundreds of millions of people, and its use is increasing. School attendance increases cannabis use due to exposure. Students who use it chronically are more likely to dislike school, not participate in extracurricular activities, and underachieve in their academics.

Marijuana’s effects are primarily due to one of the many chemicals it contains, THC and it is the THC concentration that determines its potency. Since marijuana has achieved cultural acceptance as a recreational drug and is now being legalized in different states, as well as countries, it tends to remain part of many people’s ongoing lives, remaining a part of their lives during employment, relationships, and even parenting. This raises the concern of how marijuana can affect your pregnancy or your developing baby.

Twenty percent of pregnant women younger than 24 have tested positive for marijuana, exposed to it in various ways. This is twice the number of women who actually admit they use it during pregnancy, making studies based on users’ self-reporting very unreliable.

This article explores the often frightening realities of marijuana use in pregnancy, divided into two sections:

Marijuana Use in General

Acceptance of cannabis being safe is based on misleading assumptions.

It is tempting to believe cannabis is completely harmless for many reasons, especially since it doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous. However, three reasons, in particular, seem to encourage use, which also pertains to its popularity in pregnant women:

1. Marijuana is being legalized

First, it is becoming legal in more states every year, for possession and even purely recreational use. Because these laws are made by our government, it is assumed its use has the government’s support via oversight, FDA approval, the OK by medical societies, or safety guarantees by other regulatory agencies. It is important to remember that it is still illegal at the federal level, and not all states have legalized it. Also, its legality is based on Constitutional rights and not on medical proof of safety (especially in pregnancy). Much of these legal hurtles have been overcome by an attitude that marijuana has been accepted among people, as has happened with other natural substances that can affect us, such as tobacco, coffee and tea, alcohol, etc.

2. Marijuana has medical benefits

Second, its medical benefits, being studied like never before, have generated claims—some proven, some not—that is effective in treating a number of medical and health conditions. It is important to note that there are no benefits being described as they pertain to pregnancy.

3. Marijuana is seen as a social, casual drug

Third, many persons who have stopped using it have no qualms about it because these ex-users have noted no physical, psychological, or mental changes in themselves after even frequent use before stopping. Social engagements and environments such as college and music festivals see many use marijuana frequently, only to stop after no longer participating in such activities.

This Is Your Brain on Marijuana

In discussing marijuana use in pregnancy, whether it is used recreationally, medically, or due to addiction, it is helpful to understand how it affects people in general, which includes pregnant women—and their unborn babies.

Marijuana is a substance called a “cannabinoid,” which is a fancy name for a class of chemicals contained in it. But plants aren’t the only things that make these types of chemicals. People—including developing babies during pregnancy—also make their own types of cannabinoids—a natural process.

We make similar chemicals that are like the molecules found in marijuana. Humans have evolved to make these chemicals which are parts of our bodies. These chemicals turn on certain types of receptors (the “cannabinoid” receptors), especially in our brains, that have several functions once they become activated (“turned on”). So, while marijuana is external—that is, brought into the body from outside, we also have our own similar substances working all the time, in the background, for our well-being.

This doesn’t mean you can assume that marijuana, taken into your body from outside, is completely safe for you or your pregnancy. While the system in our own bodies has been part of our evolution and is a normal part of our make-up, it was designed for our own brain-made chemicals, not for those plant-made ones found in marijuana plants.

The function of this internal system of marijuana-like chemicals is to balance our systems. It uses signalling chemicals called “neurotransmitters” that, when they fit into specific receptors in the brain for them, begin chain reactions of processes to keep us in balance.

Marijuana Creates Imbalance in Your System

This balancing system works via fine-tuning what is needed for your healthy body maintenance. But when you use marijuana, containing THC or CBD, there is no balance. In fact, it’s like a sledgehammer to the receptors without regard to what is needed for the balance. If you consume marijuana while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, your baby will be consuming it, too.

This bypassing your natural balance renders a result: you will notice the effects. These differences you notice can be used to your advantage medically to help dampen pain, inflammation, or nausea; or to your disadvantage to cause confusion, incoordination, and false appetite when used for recreational effects (the “high”). But there is no advantage to a developing baby.

Many researchers feel that illnesses like fibromyalgia or inflammatory bowel disease happen when there is an imbalance in your system, especially your internal system that uses cannabinoids, harming your immune system. This is why balance is important and it could be why using external sources like marijuana to fill and overwhelm your receptors can be harmful or even dangerous.

  • THC binds directly with your brain’s natural receptors.
  • CBD raises your natural cannabinoids (neurotransmitters) in your system by mucking with your body’s enzymes that normally keep it from rising too high.

One enzyme FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) is our protection from overstimulation from our own endocannabinoid system. It breaks down your natural, internal cannabinoid neurotransmitters as part of the natural balance. CBD stops FAAH in its job, so it wrecks the balance.

Marijuana Use in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Your baby is what you eat…and smoke.

Using cannabis puts THC into your bloodstream and, if you are pregnant, it crosses over into your developing baby’s blood circulation from the placenta. It also gets into your breast milk, meaning that there is still risk after delivery. Although the blood of an unborn baby can’t be tested, the breastfeeding studies have proved that the more marijuana is used, the higher the concentrations of THC climb in the milk, and thus the more your baby will get. The baby’s nervous system is still maturing, and this introduces a rogue element into a very important maturation process.

The problem with studying the negative effects of cannabis associated with pregnancy is due to the nature of the two groups of pregnant women who would serve as test subjects.

  1. The first is the group who would line up for a study to see if cannabis would hurt their baby. This is ridiculous, and just as unethical, so this theoretical group does not really exist.
  2. The second group is comprised of pregnant and recently delivered mothers who used cannabis during pregnancy as part of a marijuana substance use disorder. The reason they are a problem to study is because of confusion from other factors, e.g., tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and other substances, which makes it hard to isolate just the cannabis from the mix.

Nevertheless, the literature is catching up by using methods that eliminate the confusion. There are statistical methods to correct “for” these factors so that the data and results are more accurate.

A particularly disturbing concern arises over the ability of cannabis to alter nerve development and the dopamine reward system in the unborn. What this means is that the miraculous process of fetal development, about which we still have much to learn, is being impacted by outside sources. This development is infinitely complex, with countless processes required to line up in just the right way, so any outside influences should be carefully considered. (Just one example is the Thalidomide disaster in the 1950s in which children born of mothers who took an over-the-counter sleeping pill in Germany suffered severe limb deformities and experienced a 60% rate of mortality.)

What is safe for you as an expectant mother, therefore, should never automatically be considered safe for your baby. Exactly how fetal development is affected is still being explored, but there have been hints in the literature that there are fetal risks from cannabis that are quite real:

Prenatal exposure to marijuana has been shown to cause:

  • A decrease in newborn birth weight;
  • A higher likelihood of the newborn requiring admission into an intensive care unit;
  • An increased risk of preterm birth, with subsequent associated complications of neonatal jaundice, intracranial hemorrhage, and cerebral palsy;
  • An increased risk of congenital defects (cardiac, brain, and Down syndrome);
  • An increased risk of childhood neurodevelopment problems (attention deficit, hyperactivity, cognitive deficits in problem solving);
  • An increased risk of anemia in the mothers and increased risk of placental abruption (separation before birth, which is life-threatening to both mother and baby);

The bottom line:

There has never been established any safe amount of marijuana use in pregnancy and breastfeeding, and the literature is filled with evidence that exposure to the fetus poses a medical and unethical risk.

The evidence is in: marijuana causes a significant imbalance in important physiological processes which can cause risk to your body systems, your brain health, your pregnancy, and your baby’s development. In pregnancy, you are risking the next 70-90 years of quality of life for your child and as the traditional protector of your offspring, marijuana use is simply unacceptable.

If you or your partner are pregnant and struggling with a substance use disorder (including marijuana use) you need to seek out help immediately. Speak with your doctor or call a treatment center, and make sure they offer the services you require for recovery.