The side effects of cannabis prohibition means less scientific research is conducted, but also causes patients to withhold their cannabis use from medical professionals. This also applies to pregnant women who may be using cannabis to cope with ailments during pregnancy.
One recent study surveyed cannabis use among women and pregnant women. Among pregnant women between the ages of 12 and 17, 14 percent admitted to using cannabis within the past 30 days, compared to 6 percent of non-pregnant women in the same age group.
“Those numbers are very distressing,” said Nora Volkow, an author of the study and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Teenagers who get pregnant are the ones at greatest risk of having poor [pregnancy] outcomes, and then on top of that, you have the effect of teenage women smoking marijuana while they are pregnant.”
The results of the study inspires multiple theories as to why young pregnant women are using cannabis.
“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll go together for a reason,” said Stuart Gitlow, an addiction psychiatrist and former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “People do them as a method for rebelling outside the parameters of what they are supposed to do.”
But Gitlow also speculated that a lack of awareness may cause teens to use cannabis as a “natural” remedy for pain and morning sickness.
“That is unfortunate because it implies that it is safe,” he said. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Another theory is that this particular age group faces many obstacles during pregnancy that adult women do not. Parenthood is the leading cause of teen girls dropping out of school, and results in fewer women graduating from college. Although sexual education and access to birth control has helped teen pregnancy rates go down, the social stigma can cause mothers to hide their pregnancy, isolating them from medical professionals. “Being pregnant often has a really strong influence on a woman’s life,” said Roshini Zachariah, a physician in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington. “They may think, I want to do everything right for my baby.”
The legalization of cannabis at the state level has accelerated in recent years, with one in five Americans living in a state where marijuana is legal. While a multi-billion dollar industry has developed in response to legalization, public health awareness has yet to catch up, partially due to the lack of peer-reviewed research caused by cannabis prohibition.
The job of medical professionals will be to find a way to effectively counsel patients without jeopardizing their privacy, nor risking the physician’s license. Parents who have administered medical marijuana risk a visit by Child Protective Services and risk losing custody of their child.
“It highlights the importance of educating the public on measures that could protect the newborn,” said Volkow.
In states with a thriving cannabis industry, tax revenue collected from the sale of cannabis is often used to fund public health awareness campaigns. “I’ve always said we need to start treating marijuana like the drug it is, not the drug some fear it to be,” said Colorado Rep. Jonathan Singer, who has helped shaped his state’s cannabis legislation. Colorado’s “Good to Know” campaign focused on educating new users as well as pregnant women about responsible cannabis use.