Mothers receive a lot of advice about how to treat their bodies during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Along with the ubiquitous caution to avoid cigarettes and alcohol, most mothers in the U.S. also receive a warning to avoid cannabis use. The effects of alcohol and tobacco on the developing child are well documented; however, those of cannabis are far less understood.
Common Claims about Maternal Marijuana Use
While the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug in the U.S. has made research into this question very difficult, several studies have sought to determine the effects of maternal marijuana use. Some have purported to show effects such as low birth weight, shorter gestation, birth defects, and neurobehavioral abnormalities. A major criticism of many of these studies, however, is that their methodologies have failed to control for confounding factors such as maternal health, education, socioeconomic status, and use of other drugs. Furthermore, the legal status of cannabis and the social stigma that accompanies being a marijuana user create problems for researchers in recruiting a representative sample of pregnant and nursing users in the U.S.
A Look Through a Different Lens
Dr. Melanie Dreher, anthropologist and current Dean Emeritus at Rush University College of Nursing, has sought to determine the actual effects of marijuana use by conducting studies in a different cultural context. She has been studying marijuana since 1970, largely in populations in Jamaica, where the prevailing ideas about “ganja” (as it’s called in Jamaica) are very different from those in the U.S. There, it is commonly used for medicinal, religious, and general health purposes as well as socially. Known as the “king of herbs,” ganja is used to combat the nausea and fatigue of pregnancy, treat the pain and inflammation of teething in infants, promote the robust growth and academic achievement of children, stimulate appetite, treat asthma, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders, and more.
Childhood Ganja Use
Dr. Dreher’s research into marijuana’s effects on children began with an examination of consumption by the children themselves. She notes that in Jamaica’s rural and working-class communities, there is a prevalent belief that giving children ganja tea helps them to grow robustly and do well in school. In contrast to the U.S., where giving a child marijuana would be considered child abuse in most cases, in these communities, the same act is considered good parenting.
This study showed that the children who were given ganja tea did, as their parents expected, perform better in school than their counterparts who did not get the tea. However, Dr. Dreher cautions that this may be not a direct effect of cannabis consumption, but rather a result of attentive parenting in general. At the same time, she hypothesized in a 2013 interview that she would not be surprised to see a similar result if she were to revisit the question, stating that based on more recent research on the effects of cannabis on memory and learning, THC could conceivably enhance a student’s ability to focus in a crowded classroom environment such as found in working-class Jamaican schools.
Maternal Ganja Use
Dr. Dreher returned to Jamaica to study the effects of cannabis use by pregnant mothers. Researchers used the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scales to assess children at 1, 3, and 30 days of life, comparing the results of cannabis-exposed and non-exposed babies. At 1 and 3 days, no significant differences were found. Surprisingly, however, at one month of age, the children of heavy ganja-using mothers were more alert and robust, less irritable, and more rewarding for caregivers than those of non-using mothers. Again, however, Dr. Dreher was careful to acknowledge that factors other than cannabis use, such as maternal education and access to resources, were likely contributors to this outcome.
She returned to Jamaica five years later to revisit these children and again assessed them on the Brazelton scales. This time, she found no significant differences in the scores of children of ganja-using and non-using mothers. What she did find was a strong correlation between these children’s scores and their home environments and school attendance, regardless of whether their mothers used ganja.
Continuing to Question
The position of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is that all pregnant and nursing women should be counseled to discontinue marijuana use. According to their Committee on Obstetric Practice, “There are insufficient data to evaluate the effects of marijuana use on infants during lactation and breastfeeding, and in the absence of such data, marijuana use is discouraged.” This is in stark contrast, however, to the specific warnings the group gives regarding alcohol and tobacco use.
The one point on which all can agree is that further study into the question of maternal cannabis use is needed before we can make definitive claims about any potential harms or benefits. It is certain that the War on Drugs has profoundly colored our view of the practice, and in order to reach well reasoned conclusions, it’s necessary to shed our cultural biases around it. These Jamaican studies provide a much needed glimpse outside of our own prejudices.
Dreher, "Five-year Follow-up of Rural Jamaican Children whose Mothers used Marijuana during Pregnancy." Wisconsin Medical Journal. Wisconsin Medical Society, 1991. Web. 18 Nov 2015.
Dreher, "Prenatal Marijuana Exposure and Neonatal Outcomes In Jamaica: An Ethnographic Study." Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, Feb 1994. Web. 18 Nov 2015.
Dreher, "Schoolchildren and Ganja: Youthful Marijuana Consumption in Rural Jamaica." Anthropology and Education Quarterly. Council on Anthropology and Education, 1984. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
"Pregnancy and Cannabis -- Dr. Melanie Dreher." YouTube. CannabisPatientNet, 14 May 2013. Web. 18 Nov 2015.
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