After two days of excessive vomiting and nausea, Jodene* was admitted to hospital.
She was dangerously dehydrated and unable to stand for longer than a few seconds at a time. What she didn’t know was that she was also 9 weeks pregnant.
“I guess I should have figured it out at that point, but the nausea was so overwhelming I couldn’t think straight,” she says. She was 29 and it was her first pregnancy.
After two days in hospital, she was released – but the nausea continued. No amount of prescription medication or traditional remedies seemed to help. “Ginger tea usually helped to ease my nausea, but when I was pregnant it made no difference,” she says. “I could hardly even stomach water. It was the closest thing to death I’ve ever felt.”
She was in and out of hospital for the next few weeks. “I knew that the lack of food wouldn’t only starve me but also my baby,” Jodene says. “I was desperate for a solution – any solution.”
Nausea is commonly associated with the early stages of pregnancy. The intensity and length of the nausea varies for every person: while some view ‘morning sickness’ as a mild irritation, it can be dangerous for people like Jodene. Jodene was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), which is a potentially fatal condition characterized by intense vomiting and nausea during pregnancy. It affects about 1-2% of pregnant people.
Eventually, Jodene’s mother made a suggestion that surprised her. “My conservative mother has always fervently opposed drug use of all sorts, but surprisingly, she said marijuana was a nausea cure her aunts swore by during their pregnancies,” she explained. After discussing it with her partner, she tried it.
And it worked. A light hit a day kept her nausea under control and helped her regain her appetite. When she was at the 20 week mark, her nausea eased. She was finally able to focus on preparing for the arrival of her baby. Jodene’s child is now four years old.
Cannabis and Pregnancy
There is increasing discussion around whether marijuana can treat nausea during pregnancy. Marijuana has been used in obstetrics for centuries: “Cannabis Treatments in Obstetrics and Gynecology: A Historical Review” by Dr. Ethan Russo highlights how marijuana has been used to ease difficult childbirth from as early as the 7th century BC. In Chinese and Persian societies, cannabis flowers and seeds were used to induce contractions, prevent miscarriages, and ease nausea. Cannabis has also been used for pregnancy in African, Indian, and Southeast Asian cultures, first becoming a common cure for morning sickness in Western cultures in the mid-19th century.
Research shows that our ancestors were onto something. A Canadian study has recently shown how 84 pregnant women used medical marijuana to ease nausea and vomiting. 92 percent of the participants rated cannabis as an ‘effective’ or ‘extremely effective’ form of treatment for nausea, vomiting, and HG. Recently, Dr. Wei-Ni Lin Curry documented and published the symptoms of her own HG and how she used cannabis to ease the symptoms.
But is marijuana usage during pregnancy safe for both the pregnant person and the embryo or fetus? There’s a lack of conclusive research on this.
A commonly-cited 1994 study based in Jamaica suggests that there aren’t any negative effects of marijuana on the fetus. In the study, doctors examined the weight and early childhood development of babies at three days old, comparing the babies of mothers who consumed cannabis during pregnancy to those who did not. At 30 days old, babies who were exposed to marijuana in utero performed better on certain physiological tests than non-exposed babies of the same age. This, however, could be the result of the socio-economic status of the mothers as opposed to an effect of marijuana.
It’s not only Jamaica. A controlled survey of 12 060 British women showed no significant differences in growth between exposed newborns and newborns who were not exposed to cannabis in utero. A similar conclusion was reached after a Copenhagen-based survey of 12,885 mothers. In 1997, an Australian study surveying 32,482 mothers concluded that “[t]here is inadequate evidence that cannabis, at the amount typically consumed by pregnant women, causes low birth weight.”
Two studies – the Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Study and the Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study – suggest that children exposed to heavy amounts of marijuana in utero might develop slower on an intellectual and emotional level. However, the methodology of these studies is flawed as they don’t control for most socio-economic factors. In other words, the slow development of some children could be due to a range of other factors.
These studies are often inconclusive because it’s difficult to control for the intake of other substances, like alcohol or tobacco, which can affect the development of the fetus. They also can’t control for the socio-economic conditions of the parents and child.
Everything in Moderation
Caroline*, a 49-year-old midwife who used a small amount of marijuana during her pregnancies, advises pregnant patients to use marijuana with caution during pregnancy. “There are definitely benefits, especially for women with HG, but we don’t know what risks there are yet. Until such a time, smoke in moderation – and only if you need to,” she suggests.
It’s important to be aware of the non-medical risks to using marijuana during pregnancy. If you test positive for marijuana during or shortly after birth, you might be charged with child endangerment, depending on the laws in your country or state.
Writing for AlterNet, Amie Newman points to the case of Alma Baker. In 2004, Baker gave birth to twins and tested positive for marijuana. She used marijuana during her pregnancy to treat her nausea. As a result of her positive test, she was charged for violating two acts: “Delivery of Controlled Substances to a Minor” and the “Prenatal Protection Act,” both laws that existed in Texas. She was fined and placed on probation.
Parents like Jodene and her husband believe these laws are unjustified. “If I didn’t use marijuana, my child would definitely have died. I might have died,” Jodene says. “I don’t regret using weed and I refuse to feel guilty about doing what I had to do to survive.”
Caroline and Jodene both call for more research into the effects of maternal marijuana on fetuses. “Hopefully, more research will help lawmakers and doctors make informed decisions about legalizing medical marijuana for pregnancy,” Caroline says. Until such a time, though, expectant mothers in Jodene’s situation will continue to rely on the herb to help them survive.
* Not their real names
This post was originally published on June 21, 2016, it was updated on March 15, 2017.