‘Cannabis saved my pregnancy': how safe is weed for mums-to-be?

Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Beauty
[Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Beauty]

Melissa Vaughn, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mum in Boston in the US, believes that brownies saved her baby. Specifically, those made with weed-infused butter.

Before she baked her first batch, she tried everything else she could find to alleviate her severe morning sickness, called hyperemesis, which began around four weeks into her first trimester and got progressively worse.

“I would constantly vomit,” Melissa (not her real name) tells Yahoo Beauty. “I couldn’t keep any food down. I couldn’t keep any water down. I was totally incapacitated, in bed, unable to function. And I lost 12 pounds in seven days.”

Desperate for a solution, Melissa went to her obstetrician and got prescriptions for several medications, including Zofran, which gave her a migraine so terrible, she says, “I wanted to rip my eyeballs out of my head.” A suppository she tried made her “groggy as hell,” she adds, “and I was still sick with it.” Meanwhile, her husband, Nick, who works in advertising, took 10 days off to care for Melissa as well as their nursery-aged daughter.

“He was trying to push as many fluids into me as he could, but then I’d throw up,” she says. “I was waifish. My skin started losing its color; my cheeks were sinking in.”

It was at that point that Nick began reading online about the medical benefits of cannabis, and came back to Melissa with an idea: What about smoking some weed? “I talked to my friend’s neighbour, who is a midwife, and she said that that was the only thing that got her through her first trimester,” Melissa says. “So I smoked a little bit of weed. I coughed, and the coughing made me throw up. But after that, the symptoms just disappeared. It was amazing.”

After repeating this trial over a couple of days, she decided to try an “edible,” to cut out the smoking and coughing entirely. The medical-grade chocolate she tried was too strong, but Betty Crocker’s Brownie Mix was the perfect vehicle for delivering small amounts of Blueberry Headband, a hybrid strain of cannabis that she bought from a friend.

“I figured out how I could curb the nausea but not feel like a stony-pony,” says Melissa, who ate three to four mini pot brownies a day — the equivalent of one whole brownie. “There were no side effects. It completely stopped my nausea.”`

Melissa, by the way, is not a cannabis smoker. “I don’t like being high,” she says, but for at least a few weeks during her pregnancy, she counted on it.

And her story, while extreme, isn’t as unusual as you might think. According to a recent study published in JAMA, women in the US are increasingly ingesting cannabis during their pregnancies to stop morning sickness and other conditions, including anxiety and depression. The number of pregnant women willing to report their use there is low: In 2014, less than 4% of pregnant women said they had used it in the past month, up from 2.4% in 2002. But some researchers believe the real figures are much higher.

So why don’t we hear more about its benefits over here in the UK? Over in the US, many states have legalised the drug – but here, merely possessing it can get you up to five years in prison.

And not enough is known about the effects of cannabis exposure on offspring. “It’s one of those things where it is still so hush-hush, because you don’t want people to look at you like you put your child in danger,” says Melissa, who asked for anonymity in this story precisely because of the potential judgement. Still, she adds, “I was more nervous about the pharmaceuticals than I was about the marijuana, because it is a natural substance.”

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists disagrees, and recommends that pregnant women and women hoping to become pregnant “be encouraged to discontinue cannabis use.” And studies have raised questions about the link between prenatal cannabis exposure and adverse offspring outcomes that include low birth weight and impaired neurodevelopment.

But much more information is needed, says Dr. Shayna N. Conner, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and co-author of a recent report reviewing 31 previously published studies on marijuana use during pregnancy.

Conner and her team concluded that cannabis was “not an independent risk factor for adverse neonatal outcomes after adjusting for confounding factors,” such as tobacco and alcohol consumption. Still, while her particular study was “reassuring” in terms of immediate neonatal effects, she says, it doesn’t give a complete picture. “Studying cannabis in pregnancy is very hard because we can’t ever do a randomised controlled trial where we say, ‘All right, this group of patients, you have to smoke cannabis, and this group of patients, you don’t.’ That would never happen.” In the meantime, researchers are relying on imperfect studies and screens.

“Both have biases that come with the results,” Conner says. “If you rely on women to tell you whether or not they use cannabis, the results aren’t always true.” A woman might say she didn’t use cannabis when she did, for instance. “Also, urine or blood drug screens might be negative — say they didn’t use — when they did, [but] earlier on in pregnancy.”

Back in 1994, Dr. Melanie C. Dreher, former dean of nursing at Rush Medical Center in Chicago, made waves with an ethnographic study looking at prenatal cannabis exposure and neonatal outcomes in Jamaica over the course of five years. She and her team concluded that children who had been prenatally exposed to weed even benefited from it. “I’m not saying smoking it during pregnancy will make a healthier baby. The way I explained it was that women who were users had a social and economic competence that permitted them to be better moms and create a more wholesome neonatal environment,” she recently told weed historian Joe Dolce in an interview posted to Medium.

Still, the Jamaica Study, as it is known, is relatively small-scale. And women aren’t exactly lining up to confess their prenatal pot habits for fear of being judged, stigmatised, or even punished by social services once the baby is born. “As doctors, we want our patients to be completely honest with us,” says Conner, “but they’re very hesitant to discuss things like that for fear of judgement and legal action. We have a hard time identifying all those patients.”

“That’s what is missing: real stories,” adds Dolce, author of Brave New Weed: Adventures into the Uncharted World of Cannabis. And whether it’s legal or not, until the stigma is removed, it’s unlikely that those stories will be heard to full effect. Dolce cites a recent article in the New York Times, “Pregnant Women Turn to Marijuana, Perhaps Harming Infants.” “The headline could have said, ‘Pregnant Women Turn to Marijuana Because They Don’t Think There’s Any Harm.’ It didn’t say that,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “It said, ‘Perhaps Harming Infants.’ Words matter. ‘Perhaps’ is one of those words. It implies evidence, but the evidence they’re citing is so deeply flawed.” The same day the article appeared online, the Times tried to collect more anecdotal evidence with a survey.

For Melissa, the question of whether or not to ingest weed while pregnant eventually came down to a careful risk analysis. “Absolutely I was worried about it,” she says, “but then again, [it seemed like] less of a risk than the defects associated with the other pharmaceutical drugs. You had to do your research and decide which risk you were willing to take.”

Despite its availability in the US, one of those risks was still a legal one, Melissa later found out at the hospital. At one of her prenatal visits, she nervously told her doctor that cannabis stopped her morning sickness. “At this point, I was literally a day away from being hospitalised to stop the nausea with more IV drugs,” she says, “so when I finally was able to keep solids and liquids down, I said, ‘This is what actually worked.’ ”

The doctor said he was glad it worked for her, but he also entered the information into her record. “When my son was born, they had to collect his meconium to get it tested and make sure there was no THC in his system — because then I was going to have to go to social services,” Melissa says. “Isn’t that horrible?” In the end, no THC was found because she had been able to taper off at the beginning of her second trimester. But the idea of criminalising a mother for being in such an impossible situation seemed brutally unfair. “I was being threatened with social services because I had to take marijuana to get rid of my vomiting,” Melissa says.

Conner has seen patients in similar situations, using cannabis for hyperemesis or even epilepsy prior to getting pregnant. “And then they get pregnant,” she says. “It is a hard situation: How do you counsel these patients? What do you tell them? I think it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, it’s just fine, there are no worries.’” For now, she recommends stopping marijuana use and finding an alternative therapy, though some patients continue anyway.

“Uncontrolled epilepsy doesn’t have good effects on pregnancy, either, so they kind of weigh the risks and the benefits of taking cannabis for them,” Conner says. “The takeaway should be that right now, based on the limited knowledge that we have, cannabis use should not be encouraged. I wouldn’t recommend anybody take up cannabis for severe morning sickness or other medical reasons during pregnancy until we have more knowledge. Now, that being said, in the future we might clarify some results, and there might be medical conditions that require it. Every substance that we give in pregnancy has pluses and minuses that we have to weigh.”

The risk, at least for Melissa, was worth taking. “I was getting to the point where it was starting to get dire for him too,” she says, holding her baby boy in her arms. “Cannabis is what saved my pregnancy, basically.”

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