Editor’s note: Current PrEvents is produced by the Central Vermont New Directions Coalition as part of the Regional Prevention Partnership grant from the Vermont Department of Health.
With Vermont potentially becoming the next state to establish a commercial cannabis market, questions abound in the minds of Vermonters regarding cannabis and its many impacts. Whether in support of or in opposition to making recreational cannabis commercially available, many Vermonters have much to learn about cannabis.
One specific subject worth knowing more about is the use of cannabis during pregnancy. According to a resource guide produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), estimates show that between 3% and 7% of pregnant people in the United States report using cannabis. This percentage is even higher when looking at younger folks; a recent study in California found rates as high as 22% of pregnant adolescents and 19% of pregnant young adults (ages 19-24) testing positive for cannabis use.
Why are so many pregnant women using cannabis? While some simply choose not to quit using cannabis in the same fashion that some cigarette smokers don’t quit smoking despite becoming pregnant, others are intentionally using cannabis to treat side-effects of pregnancy. According to one study, 96% of cannabis users who continued using cannabis into a pregnancy reported that they did so to treat nausea. Alarmingly, pregnant people living in states where recreational cannabis is legal might have received dangerous misinformation regarding the impacts of cannabis use from individuals working at dispensaries.
Dr. Kenneth Finn, a pain medicine specialist from Colorado and a member of the Colorado Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council, recently gave a talk in Montpelier about cannabis commercialization. In his presentation, he explained that when researchers contacted cannabis dispensaries in Colorado asking for advice regarding cannabis use during pregnancy, nearly 70% of the dispensaries that were contacted recommended using cannabis products to treat nausea in the first trimester. Few dispensaries encouraged even having a discussion with a health care provider. Finn followed up this unsettling statistic by adding that individuals who work at cannabis dispensaries are not required to have any medical knowledge; they’re merely expected to have personal experience using cannabis, so their advice is anecdotal and not necessarily rooted in hard facts.
Studies have shown that the use of cannabis during pregnancy can have long-term negative impacts on children. The Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study started in 1978 and studied roughly 700 pregnant cannabis users. The research followed nearly 200 of the offspring who were exposed to cannabis in utero and tracked them into adulthood. This study found that compared with control groups, the children who were exposed to cannabis in utero experienced a variety of negative effects throughout their lives including, but not limited to, higher rates of drug abuse and undesirable changes in brain function.
Recently, researchers have been working to identify the specifics of how THC impacts developing fetuses. A study from Queen’s University and Western University published in Scientific Reports in early 2020 researched the impacts of cannabis use during pregnancy by exposing pregnant rats to a low-dose of THC proportional to what a pregnant adult human using cannabis on a daily basis would pass on to their developing baby. The rats who were exposed to THC in utero experienced a reduction in birth weight of 8% and decreased brain and liver growth by more than 20%. Additionally, the researchers studied human placental cells and found that THC interfered with the placenta’s ability to transfer glucose, a vital nutrient, from the parent to the developing child.
Even after giving birth, cannabis use by a parent can still have a negative impact on a baby. THC interferes with newborns’ brain development, and traces of THC have been found in breast milk for up to six days after cannabis use by a breastfeeding parent.
In short, research shows health benefits to abstaining from using cannabis while pregnant or breastfeeding. Pregnant people who are looking for remedies to morning sickness or nausea are encouraged to discuss their needs with a healthcare provider who can offer solutions that maximize the safety and well-being of the baby.
As we are experiencing this current pandemic, we see that COVID-19 attacks the lungs. This public health concern affects mothers-to-be who are smoking or vaping marijuana or tobacco and poses a threat to the baby as well. Those with diminished lung capacity are in the high risk population for this virus.
For pregnant women seeking help with ceasing or reducing cannabis use during pregnancy, local women’s health clinicians suggest talking to one’s primary care provider, contacting a licensed drug and alcohol counselor (LADC) in the community, or calling the Community Health Team in Washington County at 802-225-5680 to access behavioral therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and psychotherapy which offer guidance and support in this journey.
In addition to therapy there are an abundance of behavioral changes folks can make — just as with tobacco or alcohol, such as: limiting exposure to people, places and things which may trigger using; finding new outlets and activities; getting acupuncture; going to a group and finding others who understand the process such as the Turning Point Center of Central Vermont, tpccv.org, 479-7373.
At this time of social distancing, SAMHSA’s helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is an option. SAMHSA is the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which offers a free, confidential helpline available 24/7, 365 days a year to connect individuals with resources for substance dependency and/or mental health disorders.
Amelia Sherman is the youth resiliency educator with Central Vermont New Directions Coalition and a freelance writer located in Montpelier.