In December, the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) published an op-ed by Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), titled “The Risks of Marijuana Use During Pregnancy.”
Volkow was inspired to write by “some sources on the internet” (always a bad sign; take it from us) that have been “touting marijuana as a solution for the nausea that commonly accompanies pregnancy.”
Whether it was these sources or the country’s general changing attitude on marijuana, more women than ever are indeed smoking weed: four percent of women reported using cannabis during their pregnancies in 2014, according to the AP, up from 2.4 percent in 2002. At least some of these women, taking note of marijuana’s value controlling nausea, are using marijuana to cope with morning sickness.
Volkow’s take on this phenomenon is summed up well in the headline—using marijuana during pregnancy is risky—so if you hadn’t time to read through, no need. And judging by the second and third takes spit through the internet take machine in the ensuing days, many didn’t.
“A lousy mix… dangers to innocents mount,” huffed LifeZette on Friday, which declared that babies whose mothers use marijuana also have lower IQ, learning and memory problems and are at a “higher risk for suicide and drug use later in life as well.”
Terrible, terrifying stuff, almost as terrible and awful as the evil mothers who think reaching for cannabis in order to to sleep or eat for a moment without hugging the toilet bowl is a good idea. Except Volkow didn’t say any of that, particularly the suicide dross, which appears to have been concocted out of whole, scary cloth.
First, it’s good to remember Volkow is not the sworn enemy of marijuana that many in government posts involving medicine have been made out to be. Like with most things marijuana, data is scant.
Decades of federal marijuana prohibition hasn’t been much good at keeping people from smoking marijuana, but it has been very effective in preventing scientists from figuring out exactly what it does to our brains and bodies and why.
Volkow is a scientist and has made repeated public calls for more research. When there is data, Volkow and NIDA accept it honestly and inform the public that there’s “solid evidence” that THC helps control nausea and “preliminary evidence” that cannabis’s constituent parts may treat pain, seizures, autoimmune diseases and other ailments.
In her JAMA piece, Volkow lays out the reasons why marijuana use during pregnancy creates “cause for concern.”
Stating first that “evidence… is limited,” Volkow nonetheless presents findings from several studies suggesting that marijuana use is linked to adverse effects in infants, including lighter brain weight, anemia and visits to the infant ICU. Later on, these same children of the weed may have memory, attention and impulse control problems.
That’s much more nuanced than the blog take mentioned above, which: fine, nuance doesn’t get you clicks. But even attributing these outcomes to marijuana goes too far.
The major meta-study (a review of other work, with conclusions drawn from the resulting pool of data) Volkow cites has a serious drawback: it doesn’t control for alcohol or tobacco use, meaning many of the infants with negative health effects attributed to cannabis had mothers who may also have been drinking or smoking cigarettes while pregnant. Another of the studies Volkow cites falls into a familiar trap for cannabis studies: it also doesn’t control for tobacco use, meaning some of the women—but not all—studied were also smoking cigarettes while pregnant.
The negative effects of alcohol and tobacco on a developing fetus, of course, are accepted and well-known.Volkow cops to this limitation in her JAMA article while also calling for more research. That nuance, too, is lost in the race to publish “Weed’s bad for babies!” takes.
Also, lost are the studies in which marijuana use was found to have no effect at all on infants—or a slightly positive one. Predictably popular in cannabis advocacy circles, a pair of studies conducted in Jamaica in the early and mid-1990s looked at children of women in a rural area with heavy marijuana use. One, a five-year study, found “no significant differences” in children whose mothers smoked weed from those who didn’t—except in two instances in which the marijuana babies performed better.
As for developmental scores when the kids where in preschool, those depended on the home environment, not marijuana. Could these results be replicated somewhere else? Would the same be true for you and your child? Who knows, the data isn’t there.
The message here isn’t “go smoke marijuana when you’re pregnant.” Volkow and NIDA are right to say that there could be a risk. There could be.
But everything could also be fine—we just don’t know. Saying anything else is dishonest, though it’s not like that ever stopped anybody.
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