Some women who use marijuana during pregnancy believe it's safer than doctor-approved medications

Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesA recent study sheds new light on prenatal marijuana use.
  • A new, small study interviewed 25 women about their use of marijuana during pregnancy.
  • The researchers found that the women had conflicting feelings about the drug.
  • They perceived marijuana as natural and safer than prescription medications and said they used marijuana to help with nausea and improve their mood during pregnancy.
  • But they also worried about the uncertain risks of the drug for pregnant people.

Some women who use marijuana during pregnancy believe the drug is natural and safer than prescription medications, according to a recent study.

For the small study, published January 11 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers conducted detailed interviews with 25 pregnant women who either said they’d used marijuana or tested positive for the drug at the time. Their aim was to examine the women’s “attitudes and beliefs” about the drug and better understand what drives prenatal cannabis use.

After the interviews were complete, the researchers found that the women perceived marijuana as being safer than other recreational drugs and even safer than prescription medications.

“There was a belief that it was not a drug – they viewed it as natural because it’s a plant,” Dr. Judy Chang, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and senior author of the study, told INSIDER. “They felt that this was more natural and therefore less concerning to them than even prescribed medications that they viewed as chemical.”

The study also found that women turned to the drug to help with nausea and improve mood

Aside from the perception of marijuana as a natural and safe substance, the researchers also identified other key “themes” from their interviews with the women.

For example, they found that the women attempted to reduce their marijuana use once they found out they were pregnant. The women also said they smoked pot to deal with nausea (a common pregnancy symptom) or improve their mood during pregnancy.

There’s already some research to suggest that nausea may be one reason for prenatal marijuana use. A study published last year found that women who had mild and severe nausea were significantly more likely to use marijuana during pregnancy than those who didn’t have those symptoms.

In the new study, a few women expressed conflicting views on marijuana as a method to address nausea. One said she didn’t want to use the drug but it helped keep her from vomiting, according to the paper. Another said she was more concerned about keeping food down – and getting enough nutrients for her baby- than about marijuana exposure.

Read more: What every mum should know about using marijuana while breastfeeding

Another major theme was that the women “were uncertain but had some concerns” about the possible risks of prenatal marijuana use.

Currently, research on the drug’s health effects for pregnant people and their babies is still limited. But, because some studies do suggest the drug can be harmful during pregnancy, major organisations (like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) advise that pregnant people avoid the drug until experts know more.

But health risks weren’t the only thing the women in the study worried about. The researchers found they were also concerned about legal risks relating to prenatal marijuana use.

That belief is not unfounded, the authors wrote, because many states have laws that mandate doctors to report mothers who use substances during pregnancy to child protective services.

The study is limited by the small number of participants, but it could inform future research

The study’s conclusions are limited by its small group of participants. Most of the women in the study were young, African-American, lower-income, and living in a region where marijuana wasn’t legal, meaning the results can’t necessarily be generalized to all pregnant people who use the drug, the authors explained in the paper.

“Women who live in other regions (particularly those in which recreational marijuana use is legal) and who have other demographic characteristics may describe different experiences, attitudes, and beliefs regarding prenatal marijuana,” they wrote.

But the authors also argued that the findings have important implications for doctors treating pregnant women.

“Understanding that women who use marijuana during pregnancy perceive marijuana to be more natural and safe than prescribed medications means that obstetric care providers will need to explore their patients’ beliefs and concerns to better assist women in making evidence-based choices,” they wrote.

And some of the findings could also help guide future research on this topic. For example, the women in the study reported a wide range in the amount of marijuana they smoked pre-pregnancy, from a few hits a day to several blunts per day, Chang explained. But previous studies haven’t always accounted for this possible variation.

“As we move forward in terms of doing the research, we really should be asking more details,” Chang said. “Not just ‘Do you use?’, but ‘Tell me a little bit more about your use.’ That’s something that we’ll have to look into further.”

Chang also told INSIDER she hopes the new study will help reduce stigma around marijuana use during pregnancy.

“I hope that this [study] provides a little bit more understanding about the complexity around this,” Chang said. “[Stigma] is never helpful. People sometimes perceive that if you demonize someone for doing a behaviour, that’s going to change that behaviour. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Behaviour is complex. What you’re doing is just isolating them.”


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