Marijuana use up among pregnant women despite doctors’ warnings
Pregnant women are increasingly using marijuana, especially during the first trimester, even as rates of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking drop, according to research published last week.
About 5 percent of women ages 18 to 44 used marijuana during their pregnancy in 2016, increasing from 2.85 percent in 2002. The latest numbers come from an analysis by Washington University School of Medicine researcher Arpana Agrawal.
The results were published as a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics and is based on federal data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
“Unlike alcohol and cigarette use, prenatal cannabis use has not decreased, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy, which is a key phase of neural development for the fetus,” Ms. Agrawal wrote in the report.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that marijuana use during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight for the baby and anemia for the mother. The agency also highlights research showing that children born to women who used marijuana have a harder time paying attention and difficulty learning.
Ms. Agrawal analyzed survey answers from more than 12,000 pregnant women, most reporting their drug and alcohol use during their first trimester.
Of those, cigarette smoking fell from 17.5 percent in 2002 to 10.34 percent in 2016. Likewise, drinking alcohol during pregnancy decreased from 9.59 percent to 8.43 percent.
Ms. Agrawal noted that the decrease in alcohol use during pregnancy was most notable for women ages 18 to 25. Decreases in cigarette smoking were most prevalent in white women, those ages 18 to 25 and those with a high school degree or higher education.
On the other hand, women using marijuana during pregnancy were more likely to be high school graduates.
Medical marijuana is available in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and recreational sales and use are allowed in nine states and the District.
The increasing number of states legalizing marijuana has led to a shift in perception and an increase in use, according to an overview published in the journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in January.
Marijuana use among adults is more prevalent in states where cannabis is legal and where more people, especially youths, view the drug as harmless, the report said.
Yet the leading motivations for expectant mothers is not clear.
The January report found no noticeable change in marijuana use among pregnant women in states where cannabis is legal versus those where it’s not.
In August, the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group published research on more than 220,000 pregnant women in California and found that those who used marijuana reported self-medicating against severe symptoms of nausea and vomiting.
“Our findings add important evidence to a small but growing body of research suggesting that some pregnant women may use marijuana to self-medicate morning sickness,” Kelly Young, lead author of the study, said in a statement at the time.
Despite the CDC’s warnings, researchers are skeptical of the reliability of longterm data. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in an August policy paper that the use of cannabis during pregnancy is more likely to occur alongside other illicit drug use and cigarette smoking, which doesn’t allow scientists to draw independent conclusions about the association of marijuana on health.
Still, the academy recommends erring on the side of caution and says a number of factors support the recommendation against using marijuana during pregnancy.
That includes the increasing potency of cannabis products and its unknown effects. The potency of marijuana increased by 10 percentage points from 1983 to 2008, according to the August report, especially in states where marijuana is legal.
Little oversight in the cultivation and production of marijuana exposes the user to ingesting pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides, fertilizers and other toxins, and the mother could pass them on to the newborn, the pediatrics academy warned.
“The fact that marijuana is legal in many states may give the impression the drug is harmless during pregnancy, especially with stories swirling on social media about using it for nausea with morning sickness,” Dr. Sheryl A. Ryan, lead author of the academy recommendation, said at the time.
“But in fact, this is still a big question. We do not have good safety data on prenatal exposure to marijuana. Based on the limited data that does exist, as pediatricians, we believe there is cause to be concerned about how the drug will impact the long-term development of children.”