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Perspective: More pregnant women are turning to marijuana. Here’s what to blame

Where did they get the impression that cannabis is much less dangerous for their health than drinking and smoking?

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A guest takes a puff from a marijuana cigarette at the Sensi Magazine party in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles.

A guest takes a puff from a marijuana cigarette at the Sensi Magazine party celebrating the 420 holiday in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles on April 20, 2019.

Richard Vogel, Associated Press

Legal sales of cannabis, first for medical and now for recreational use, have spread across the country. Yet despite what seems like years of public messaging on the idea that marijuana is a basically harmless drug that we are needlessly penalizing people for using and selling, many Americans still seem uneasy about encouraging its use. And they may be right.  

Right now, towns in New York state have until the end of the year to decide whether they want to allow cannabis dispensaries to operate within their borders. They have every incentive to say yes, including millions of potential dollars in sales tax revenue, but a large number are revisiting an old slogan: Just say no. In New Jersey, according to an analysis from the Rockefeller Institute, three-quarters of “municipalities opted out of all six categories of adult-use marijuana licenses (cultivator, manufacturer, wholesaler, distributer, retailer and delivery) that were outlined in the state’s legislation.”

You don’t need to look far for reasons why. Take the case of pregnant women: A study published this fall found that children of mothers who use marijuana during or soon after pregnancy are twice as likely as other kids to become anxious, aggressive or hyperactive. The article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how researchers looked at the presence of a chemical in the placenta, as well as hair hormone levels in young children, and then measured the performance of those children on standardized behavioral assessment as well as their heart rate variability.

These are not small findings and they are even more concerning when we consider that many pregnant women are seeking out marijuana to relieve symptoms of pregnancy, like nausea. Women “tend to think smoking and drinking during pregnancy need to be avoided at all costs, but not cannabis,” Yoko Nomura, a behavioral neuroscientist at City University of New York and a co-author of the study, told The New York Times. “We have a long way to go to educate pregnant women, policymakers and even OB-GYN doctors on this issue.”

But where did they get the impression that cannabis is much less dangerous for their health than drinking and smoking? Could it be all the government officials? New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy recently called it a “world-class industry,” and his only concern was that the “equity” issue be addressed, meaning that people of every race could share in the profits.

A Kaiser Permanente study in California earlier this year found that rates of cannabis use by women in early pregnancy went up 25% at the beginning of the pandemic. While the state’s overall use went up during the same period — about 8% for women — it seems as if pregnant women are really taking advantage. “Pregnant women are more likely to use cannabis if they are depressed, anxious, or have experienced trauma,” lead author Kelly Young-Wolff said. “It’s very possible that more pregnant women are using cannabis in an attempt to self-medicate these issues during the pandemic.” 

Obtaining cannabis to self-medicate has, of course, been much easier in recent years. While the authors don’t blame legalization outright, they note that the results are consistent with the increase in overall cannabis sales in California. According to an article from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, “State data show that cannabis’ quarterly average taxable sales from April to December 2020 was $1.2 billion, whereas the quarterly average of the 15 months’ prior was $712 million, a 68.5% increase.”

But the laws of supply and demand are not the only things driving this problem. It’s also the attitude that we are taking toward pregnant women when it comes to drugs. Though the public has become widely aware of the problems of babies born substance-exposed — the terrible withdrawal symptoms that plague them in their first few weeks out of the womb — there is also a competing narrative that the women who use drugs during pregnancy are victims and cannot be held accountable for their actions.

Some activists think that drug use during pregnancy should not be monitored at all. A group called upEnd, which advocates for the abolition of the foster care system because of its disparate racial impact, argues that we should end the drug testing of new mothers and infants altogether because it overly and needlessly involves Black women in the child welfare system.

Last year New York City ended the drug testing of mothers without their written consent. Lisa Sangoi, co-director and co-founder of the Movement for Family Power, said drug testing “targets Black and brown communities for policing, for surveillance and for control in a way that white and wealthy people who also use drugs at the same rate are rarely if ever policed.”

Of course the real solution may be simply to test everyone. And given how much more common the use of drugs during pregnancy has become, how women are now seeking out cannabis as a medical intervention, and how dangerous we now realize it is for babies, that idea is more than logical.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”