A new study finds that cannabis use among young pregnant women has risen significantly.
It’s not exactly news that women use marijuana to cope with symptoms of pregnancy, from morning sickness to the anxiety that comes with expecting a child. In fact, pregnant women have used marijuana—and marijuana products like topicals—for millennia. However, according to a new study, it turns out that the number of soon-to-be moms in America using cannabis has grown significantly in recent years. Among the pregnant women in the study, the number of marijuana users went from 4.2% to 7.1% between 2009 and 2016.
The findings, detailed in a research letter in the JAMA Journal on December 26, came from interviews with 279,457 expecting mothers ages 12 and up, each part of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health care system. In addition to completing a questionnaire about their cannabis use, the mothers-to-be completed a cannabis toxicology test during prenatal visits. Upon their eighth week of pregnancy, each woman was screened for marijuana.
The most significant discovery was that cannabis use among young pregnant women, ages 18 and under, climbed from 12.5% to 21.8% during those same five years. Marijuana use in the 18 to 24 age group also went up quite a bit, from 9.8% to 19%.
Although this latest study only involves soon-to-be moms in California, previous research conducted by JAMA suggests that cannabis use during pregnancy is growing among women nationwide. In January, the study found that marijuana use among pregnant women ages 18 to 44 climbed from 2.37% in 2002 to 3.85% in 2014.
Is legal marijuana causing an increase in cannabis use among pregnant women?
Back in the 90s, California legalized marijuana for medicinal use. And come January 1, recreational sales will begin too. “The paper is not surprising, and the findings of a rise in marijuana use during pregnancy are consistent with recent attention to marijuana and legalization in various states,” says Dr. Haywood Brown of Duke University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
Ob/Gyn specialist Horsager-Boehrer also believes legal weed may be playing a role, claiming that these younger Cali women have become accustomed to marijuana use. “Think about marijuana use from their perspective, especially in Northern California. California legalized medical marijuana use in 1996, so they have grown up with the idea of it not only being legal but being a medical therapy,” she says.
Then again, the study failed to look into exactly why marijuana use among younger pregnant women is so high. According to the study’s author Kelly Young-Wolff, researchers also had no way of knowing whether the expecting participants were consuming cannabis before finding out that they were pregnant or during gestation. While marijuana can be traced in urine for up to 90 days after use, Young-Wolff says that “it is possible, but unlikely, that some toxicology tests identified prepregnancy use.” In other words, the soon-to-be mothers were likely using the herb while pregnant.
Can cannabis harm a developing fetus? Truth be told, no one knows
These findings about pregnant women are certain to cause concern. After all, there has been some research about how consuming marijuana while pregnant can be detrimental to infants, resulting in a low birth weight as well as developmental issues. But there’s also been research that says otherwise.
Arguably the most comprehensive study on cannabis use during pregnancy was done by Dr. Melanie Dreher in the 80s. Surprisingly, it found that infants who were exposed to cannabis in the womb scored higher on their reflex tests than infants who weren’t. Dreher tested the children again at ages four and five and found no changes in IQ or behavioral performance as a result of cannabis use.
The second study, conducted by Dr. Shayna Conner, came about in 2016. She found that marijuana did not increase the risk of adverse health outcomes, but that alcohol and tobacco did.
Despite this evidence, much more research is needed. For that reason, doctors, for now, aren’t recommending moms-to-be light up. But evidently, that isn’t stopping anyone.