The Effects of Marijuana on Pregnancy

As the most widely used “legal” illegal drug in the U. S., it’s no surprise that rates of marijuana use during pregnancy are on the rise. Once considered illegal in all 50 states, marijuana laws continue to change on both the state and federal levels. Unfortunately, these changes have muddied the waters of public perception to the point where more and more people consider marijuana a harmless drug.

The health effects of marijuana can cause real problems that impact a person’s physical and mental health. These effects become all the more concerning where marijuana use and pregnancy are concerned. While the effects of cannabis may help ease bouts of nausea and morning sickness during pregnancy, marijuana effects on the fetus are not only harmful but can alter the course of a child’s life in significant ways

Knowing the effects of marijuana on pregnancy is a must for any woman who’s pregnant or considering having a child. Despite today’s growing acceptance of this drug, marijuana use can lead to dependence and addiction, which only makes a bad situation worse when you’re carrying a baby. Furthermore, it can lead to severe issues in managing postpartum depression. The good news is, if you want to stop using marijuana, you don’t have to do it alone. Marijuana rehab programs are there to help.

Marijuana – The “Acceptable” Illegal Substance

Where smoking once offered the only means to use marijuana or cannabis, today this drug has become a versatile “product,” available in edible, smoke-able, and pill forms. This variety of options reflects the public’s overall shift in perception regarding this drug. If today’s trends continue, marijuana use will become as commonplace as drinking alcohol in spite of any risks it may pose to public health.

Much like alcohol, marijuana use and abuse can develop into more serious problems. However, alcohol’s effects on the body during pregnancy have been studied extensively. Marijuana use and pregnancy have not.

For whatever reason, the scientific community hasn’t put a lot of time into studying the effects of marijuana and the information that’s known isn’t widely publicized. This information vacuum has left the public to draw its own conclusions. Consequently, an estimated 70 percent of American women see little to no risk where marijuana and pregnancy are concerned.

Marijuana comes from the cannabis plant and is advertised as “natural” and “from the earth.” This has led more than a few expectant mothers to view it as safer than taking prescription pills to treat common pregnancy discomforts, such as nausea or achiness. For these reasons, it’s all the more important to understand the real risks of using this drug and the impact it can have on a developing fetus.

State vs Federal Marijuana Laws

The laws intended to regulate the distribution and use of marijuana have evolved on both the state and federal levels over the past 15 years. Today, marijuana continues to hold a Schedule I classification as it always has since it was first listed in the 1970s. Schedule I class drugs carry a high risk of abuse and anyone who uses or distributes them commits a federal offense.

The possession or use of marijuana used to be considered a violation of state and federal law until 1996 when California became the first state to legalize its use for medical purposes. From that point on, marijuana laws have loosened considerably. While still classified as a Schedule I drug, federal jurisdiction has become more lax, giving states the last word when it comes to actually prosecuting people for distributing or using the drug.

Now, some states ban marijuana altogether while others permit its use depending on whether it’s used for medical or recreational purposes. As of January 2020, laws in 33 states deem marijuana legal for medical purposes while 11 states have laws that allow for recreational use. Considering the ongoing state of flux our laws are in, it’s no surprise concerns surrounding marijuana use and pregnancy have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Rates of Marijuana Use

As more states decide to legalize marijuana, rates of marijuana use have increased, accordingly. Results from a nation-wide survey show an estimated 7.3 percent of Americans used marijuana on a regular basis in 2012 compared to 5.8 percent in 2007. Teenagers, young adults, and low-income individuals showed the highest rates of use, coming in at 15 to 28 percent. And most of the people in these groups are in their reproductive years.

Nearly half of women who regularly smoke marijuana continue to use it during pregnancy. Also, rates of usage among women during pregnancy have been shown to vary based on marital status. A 2017 study appearing in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence reviews the results from over 7,600 women who took part in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Among unmarried women, rates of marijuana use went from five percent in 2005 to 10 percent in 2014 compared to a steady one percent among married pregnant women within the same period. Unfortunately, these upward trends will likely continue in the face of the looming health effects of marijuana, particularly the effects had on a developing fetus.

Assessing the Risks of Marijuana Use During Pregnancy

While many studies have been done on pregnancy and marijuana, other mitigating factors can make it difficult to isolate marijuana health effects. For instance, pregnant women who consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and use other types of drugs are two to three times more likely to smoke or ingest marijuana.

Other lifestyle factors, such as daily diet and overall health can influence marijuana health effects on a person’s life. Also, most of the information obtained regarding marijuana use and pregnancy comes from self-reporting, which leaves the door wide open for underestimated usage patterns and little to no tracking on the type or strength of marijuana used.

And then there are the cases that go unreported out of fear of criminal charges or legal concerns. Penalties for marijuana use during pregnancy vary from state to state, and may still apply in states where marijuana use is legal. Penalties can range from being charged with child abuse and neglect to court-ordered drug treatment to incarceration to termination of parental rights.

Considering all these mitigating factors, assessing the risks surrounding marijuana and pregnancy is no easy task. Further efforts will likely require multiple studies, more targeted research approaches, and even a bit of community outreach to weed out as many unreported cases as possible.

Marijuana and the Brain’s Cannabinoid System

The chemical compound that gives cannabis its potential for abuse is THC. What makes THC so risky lies in its ability to interact with the brain’s cannabinoid system, which acts as a neural communication network that controls a range of functions throughout the body. This system consists of neurotransmitter chemicals and cell receptor sites found in the brain, connective tissues, immune cells, glands, and organs.

Bodily functions that rely on your cannabinoid system include:

  • Movement and coordination
  • Immune system activities
  • Sensory perception
  • Thinking and concentration
  • Memory
  • Time perception
  • Pleasure sensations

THC has a chemical make-up that’s similar to anandamide, one of the primary neurotransmitters found in the cannabinoid system. This similarity makes it easy for the brain to recognize THC as one of its own natural chemicals. It also allows any THC you ingest to alter and disrupt the various bodily functions regulated by the cannabinoid system. For someone who uses marijuana on a regular basis, this can cause serious health problems to develop over time.

As far as THC potency goes, the stronger the batch the greater the effects it has. THC levels in today’s marijuana strains put batches from the 1970s and 1980s to shame, running up to seven times higher in potency. This marked change in the strength of the drug over the years not only intensifies its effects on mother and developing baby but also impacts the validity of much of the research done decades ago on pregnancy and marijuana.

The Known Effects of Marijuana Abuse & Addiction

While marijuana offers many medicinal benefits, it still poses some very real risks when used regularly. Any drug or substance capable of interfering with the brain’s natural chemical system can cause problems; especially when the brain starts to accommodate the drug’s effects and become dependent on it. Also, with today’s THC potency levels, emergency room visits for marijuana overdose have increased, noticeably; particularly for people using the drug for the first time.

The way marijuana works -from the moment it’s ingested to the aftereffects that come with regular use– offers some key clues on how its effects play out during pregnancy. Here’s a brief overview of how this substance affects your brain and body:

Short-Term Effects

THC effects differ when smoking vs ingesting marijuana in edible form. With smoking, THC goes directly from your lungs into your bloodstream. With eating, THC must travel through the digestive tract before entering your bloodstream so it takes longer to feel marijuana’s effects when using edibles.

From there, your bloodstream delivers the drug to the scores of cannabinoid receptor sites in the brain and other organs throughout the body, producing the following effects:

  • Impaired coordination
  • Increased sensory perception, as in colors look brighter
  • Memory problems
  • Shifts in mood
  • Problems with thinking and concentrating

At high dosage levels, marijuana health effects become more extreme. Certain areas of the brain house a large number of cannabinoid receptor sites and the functions regulated by these areas are most affected. Hallucinations, delusions, and even psychosis can result when ingesting high dosage amounts or when taking high doses on a regular basis.

Psychological Effects

Over time, long-term marijuana abuse can alter the brain’s chemical makeup to the point where chronic mental health problems develop. For people already struggling with mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders, marijuana’s effects can make these pre-existing conditions worse. Ultimately, long-term marijuana use creates prime conditions for mental illness to take root.

Quality of Life Effects

Marijuana use tends to have a “dulling” effect on the brain and body, as a whole. This means your body’s systems will operate less efficiently with frequent use of this drug. Marijuana weakens the body’s health as well as your overall feeling of contentment with day-to-day life. These conditions can also affect your body’s ability to carry a fetus to term. Ongoing marijuana abuse has been linked with relationship problems, poor performance at work and school, and a tendency towards injuries and accidents.

Abuse and Addiction Risks

While marijuana doesn’t produce the extreme withdrawal and cravings effects brought on by heroin or cocaine, it does carry abuse and addiction risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in 10 people who use marijuana will develop an addiction. And for people who start using it before the age of 18, one in six will become addicted.

Health Effects of Marijuana During Pregnancy

Along with TCH, marijuana contains nearly 500 chemicals, all of which pass through the mother’s placenta during pregnancy and expose the fetus. Marijuana effects on the fetus increase the risk of complications that can interfere with fetal development, including:

  • Low birth weight
  • Increased risk for stillbirth
  • Premature birth
  • Long-term problems involving fetal brain development

Here’s a little more detail on the different ways marijuana’s effects can interfere with fetal development:

Marijuana Use Exposes the Fetus to THC Effects

The THC ingredient in marijuana has a half-life of around eight days in fatty tissues and a half-life of 30 days in the blood. Drug half-life measures the length of time it takes for half of the amount ingested to leave the body. On average, the fetus absorbs one-third of the amount of TCH in the mother’s system.

Marijuana gains easy access to the fetus through the placenta, the organ that attaches to the uterus, and feeds the fetus during pregnancy. In fact, it passes through in much the same way as oxygen and other nutrients, which go directly into the fetus. Considering how long it takes for THC to leave the mother’s system, a developing fetus stands to experience ongoing exposure to THC’s effects. Where pregnancy and marijuana are concerned, these conditions can compromise embryo and fetal development in critical ways.

Impact on Fetal CNS Development

As of 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first official guidelines regarding marijuana and pregnancy. These guidelines strongly advise women against using marijuana when pregnant due to its potentially harmful effects on the fetus. Much like marijuana’s ability to interact with the brain’s cannabinoid system in the mother, the same thing happens with a developing fetus due to its exposure to THC in the womb.

The cannabinoid system takes shape during the early stages of embryo development, as early as five weeks into the gestation process. This system plays a central role in regulating the growth of the fetus’ central nervous system (CNS), including cell survival, cell growth, and cell differentiation, which is how basic cells develop into the various cell types that make up the CNS.

Ultimately, the early stages of fetal development lay the foundation for a child’s physical and mental health and can impact him or her well into adulthood. In this respect, marijuana’s ability to interfere with early fetal development comes with considerable risks, both short-term and long-term.

Effects on Gene Expression and Organ Development

Much like the developing central nervous system in a fetus, gene expression and organ development can have long-term effects on a child’s health and future well-being. Gene expression, in particular, has to do with individual cells and their ability to build and repair. It uses the DNA material contained in the cell to produce the proteins needed to build and repair its structures.

During fetal development, gene expression plays a critical role in organ growth in the baby during the course pregnancy. It also impacts the health of the placenta, which supplies the fetus with oxygen, nutrients, and also removes waste materials from the baby’s blood. Both gene expression and organ development can be impaired by marijuana’s effects on the fetus.

A 2020 study appearing in the journal Nature examined the effects of THC exposure during pregnancy. It is the first study of its kind to reveal the direct impact THC has on placenta growth and fetal growth. Researchers used human placental cells with a rat model as the subject. In order to mimic daily cannabis use during pregnancy, researchers administered low doses of THC during the course of the pregnancy. The resulting effects of THC exposure caused an eight percent reduction in birth weight along with a 20 percent reduction in brain and liver growth.

Pregnancy Outcomes

The University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute conducted a review of studies that examined marijuana use and pregnancy outcomes. Here are the results:

  • The risk for stillbirth runs two times higher for women who use marijuana.
  • There’s an increased risk that newborns will be hypersensitive to noise and light.
  • The risk for maternal anemia runs higher for women who use marijuana during pregnancy.
  • Newborns are more likely to be placed in neonatal intensive care.

Long-Term Effects on the Child

Behavioral and Mental Health Problems

As harmless as the health effects of marijuana may seem or feel, the way this drug works on the brain and body can be life-altering for children whose mothers used cannabis during pregnancy. Three large-scale studies have tracked the effects of maternal marijuana use on childhood development over the course of several years. The three studies, known as the Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study, Maternal Health Practices and Child Development study, and the Generation R Study, have produced consistent results, which is not something that happens often where marijuana research is concerned.

The Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study examined the effects of maternal marijuana use in 200 children from birth to adulthood. The Maternal Health Practices and Child Developmental Study observed the same effects in 580 children from birth to age 14. The Generation R study started in April 2002 and continues to track the effects of maternal marijuana use in 8,000 children from birth to adulthood.

Results from the three studies are as follows:

  • The children displayed problems with impulse control
  • Hyperactivity was a common feature
  • Lower IQ scores were prevalent
  • Memory problems

Effects of Second-Hand Marijuana Smoke on the Child

As harmful as marijuana effects on the fetus can be, infants, children, and teenagers exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke after birth are also at risk of experiencing adverse effects. Second-hand marijuana smoke contains THC, which can be ingested by anyone nearby, including children. Results from ongoing research in this area show young people exposed to marijuana smoke on a frequent basis may experience permanent effects along the lines of impaired memory, reduced executive brain function, and lower IQ.

Breastfeeding Risks

Breastfeeding provides an infant with the antibodies and hormones it needs to protect it from illness. A mother’s breast milk contains a unique combination of protective materials specific to the infant’s needs. That being so, the risks involved with marijuana use far outweigh the benefits of exposing an infant to the drug’s effects.

The THC component of marijuana accumulates in breast milk in high concentrations. Evidence of this can be seen in how THC will show up in a breastfeeding infant’s urine for up to three weeks after feeding. In turn, infants can experience marijuana health effects from breast milk, some of which include:

  • Reduced muscle tone
  • Sedation
  • Poor sucking
  • Decreased motor development

The overall effects on infants can vary depending on how strong the marijuana is and what contaminants it contains. For these reasons and others, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against breastfeeding for mothers who use marijuana.

When to Consider Getting Help for Marijuana Use

It should come as no surprise that the mixed messaging the public receives regarding marijuana’s health effects can make getting rehab treatment help seem unnecessary. Proponents of marijuana use say it doesn’t carry a risk for abuse and yet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders devotes an entire section to Cannabis-Related Disorders. Unfortunately, in the midst of this confusion, each individual user must determine if he or she needs help overcoming a marijuana abuse problem on their own.

Much like with opioids and alcohol, different people respond to drinking and taking opioids in different ways. Some people have no problem having a few beers a night while others reach a point where they can’t stop drinking once they start. The same goes for marijuana use, whether recreational or medicinal.

The adverse health effects of marijuana are real and these same effects are in play where marijuana use and pregnancy are concerned. If you’re pregnant or planning to get pregnant, knowing what signs to watch for can go a long way towards helping you protect your baby and keep a bad situation from getting worse.

Here are a few things to consider along the way:

Withdrawal – The First Sign of a Problem

Withdrawal syndromes exist for every drug that carries a risk of abuse. As mentioned before, withdrawal symptoms develop out of the brain’s need for the drug, otherwise known as dependence. Since withdrawal episodes tend to be uncomfortable, they are primary drivers of continued drug use since many users turn to the drug to gain relief from uncomfortable symptoms. This, in turn, places users inside a vicious cycle of abuse and withdrawal that paves the way for addiction to take shape.

A 2020 meta-analysis study published in JAMA set out to determine how often cannabis withdrawal occurs in people who use marijuana on a regular basis. Data retrieved from multiple databases based on the responses of 23,518 participants revealed 47 percent of regular marijuana users experience cannabis withdrawal syndrome. For these reasons, it’s important to know the signs and not assume your marijuana use is harmless.

Here are some signs of marijuana withdrawal to watch out for:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weird dreams
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety or feeling nervous
  • Problems sleeping
  • Anger
  • Weight loss

Keep in mind, too, that marijuana’s long half-life can cause a delay in terms of when signs of withdrawal appear. This is especially true if you use marijuana on a daily basis. Under these conditions, go back and see if you’ve been smoking or ingesting increasing amounts over time. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How much marijuana was I using a month ago compared to now?
  • Am I using marijuana more often than I used to, such as two or three times a day, now, compared to just once a day, two months ago?
  • Can I enjoy my day if I don’t smoke it at all?

If the amount you smoke or ingest has increased steadily over time, this means your brain and body are developing an increasing tolerance for the drug. In other words, it’s more than likely you’ll experience withdrawal if marijuana use stops.

Behavioral and Lifestyle Changes

Even in cases where withdrawal symptoms are few and far between, problematic marijuana use will inevitably bleed into your lifestyle and the choices you make. Choosing to engage in drug use in spite of any negative consequences that result, points to an abuse-addiction problem. Examples of this include:

  • Missing work to engage in drug use
  • Using marijuana while at work
  • A general feeling of discontent with life
  • Bouts of anxiety and/or depression
  • Noticeable decline in work performance when “high”
  • Legal problems, such as DUIs
  • Neglecting daily obligations, such as forgetting to feed the baby or change its diaper
  • Loss of interest in activities and pursuits you once enjoyed

In the case of pregnancy and marijuana, continuing to smoke or ingest the drug while carrying a baby reflects the hold it has on a person’s power of choice. The same goes for alcohol’s effects, nicotine’s effects, and any other substance that can skew your ability to make good choices for your baby.

Treatment Options to Consider

When drug abuse and addiction’s effects take hold, stopping drug use becomes extremely difficult whether you realize you have a problem or not. If you’ve tried to stop using marijuana one or two times with little to no success, this is a good sign that some level of rehab support is needed. Many marijuana rehab centers offer treatment for women during pregnancy, which includes comprehensive treatment planning that addresses your pregnancy and childcare concerns.

Rehab treatment options for marijuana abuse and addiction include:

  • Detox – the initial stage that’s designed to help you stop using the drug
  • Outpatient care – provides behavioral therapies, counseling, and peer supports
  • Residential care – provides a live-in treatment environment where you develop the types of daily living routines that can support continued abstinence

The level of care you need depends on the severity of the drug problem. As a general rule, the more marijuana has disrupted your life the more structured the rehab program should be. Residential programs offer the most structure, support, and guidance while outpatient programs are the least restrictive, allowing you to attend treatment sessions around your schedule.

Ideally, you want to get the help you need before you get pregnant, however, stopping drug use while pregnant will limit any potential harm to the fetus. And try to be honest with yourself about your marijuana use so you can choose the program that best meets your needs in recovery. Considering what’s at stake with a baby on the way, the sooner you can get the help you need the better.



Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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