Marijuana and the 'using it while pregnant' debate

Marijuana and the 'using it while pregnant' debate

CultureJanuary 23, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Children of mothers who use marijuana during pregnancy are more likely to be weak, small and not as smart, something that's becoming more and more important. In some places like Colorado hospitals, between a quarter and a third of newborns now test positive for THC. Some are even using this particular data as a reason to try to prohibit pot again.

So who are all these women? What kind of mom takes that risk with their kids?

Well … Stella Christiansen, for one. In her metro Denver home, she holds her smiling 4-month-old baby, Sherman, while kissing him softly. Her doctorate degree in a biological science hangs on the wall, near stuffed animals placed neatly on shelves.

Stella might be a candidate for Mom of the Year if — while still pregnant — she hadn't fired up her Volcano packed with high-THC Tangerine Dream. This action could have actually put her in the crosshairs of Child Protective Services had she been caught — regardless of how great a mother she is all other times.

Stella knows this. "I felt super guilty," she says.

Angela Stevens, a nurse and midwife in Boulder, says more and more Colorado women are admitting to her that they're smoking pot. Nationally, about 4 percent of pregnant women used marijuana last month, new data states. That's up from 2.4 percent in 2002. Stevens, like nearly every medical professional, advises moms-to-be to avoid it.

So why do moms vape up?

Stella did it for two reasons. The first reason is completely understandable for anyone who’s ever gone through a rough pregnancy.

"I was puking in so many places," she says. "I puked at bus stops. In trash cans. In the parking lot of the symphony. In three different bathrooms at work. A few cafes. St. Mark's Cafe in Denver is a really good cafe, but the bathroom is not good for puking." She puked so much she felt like her fetus wasn't getting nutrients. Plus, she couldn't hold down the antibiotics doctors were giving her to cure a UTI. She carefully read the scientific literature on vaping pregnant, and decided the benefits outweighed the risks. She vaped every day for a week, and it cured her nausea, which cured the UTI, which, she reckons, made the baby start loving life again.

Her second reason for vaping is, well, iffy.

Vaping cannabis while pregnant makes music sound fucking amazing too, she says.

Pregnant or not, the bass drops harder, the through-line is easier to recognize, and the rhythm easier to keep, when you're a little high. So, though pregnant, Stella admits she had tickets to Carmina Burana, a heavenly symphony — and so she vaped. Maybe five small puffs. She vaped two or three other times for fun. She can't help but wonder: did fetus Sherman get high, too? Did the music sound better to him, too?

And she can't help but also wonder: how messed up was it to get a fetus high?

Moms are scared to do the wrong thing, and they're desperate for solid beta, but the advice our society gives expectant mothers is often a Dr. Spock clusterfuck of bad information and Baby Bjorn terror. And there's a tendency for everyone involved, both the moms and the doctors, to be black-and-white about things.

Alcohol is a perfect example. The official position of the nation's most prominent group of ob/gyns is that "no amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe." Not a drop. Not a sip. Not a glass. But in practice, these days, many moms agree that a glass of wine here or there late in the pregnancy probably won't give your baby t-rex arms.

Case in point: I recently sat near a doctor who was far along in pregnancy sipping from a glass of white wine at dinner. She seemed like the perfect person to ask about Stella's marijuana use. The doctor shrugged, saying, "She's probably fine." As any doctor will tell you: dose matters. Stella only used a little. But, the doc told me, "There's just not enough research, and no one's going to do the research." You can't hotbox random Lamaze classes for nine months and then hope the babies don't come out affected by it.

Occasionally, someone does try to do the research. It doesn't go well.

In the 1980s, Melanie Dreher tried. She knew of studies that claim stoner babies tend to come out twisted. But she had a different theory about why. In the 1980s, in America, she believed, moms who toked up while pregnant also tended to make other poor decisions, so pot-mom babies came out unhealthy not because of the cannabis itself, but because the moms also chain-smoked cigarettes and guzzled booze.

She felt this way because in the 1980s, in Jamaica, it was just the opposite. Down there, giving your kids marijuana isn't a reason to call social services; it's a sign of good parenting. When Dreher studied these families, she found that babies of ganja-using moms were just as healthy as any other kids, if not healthier. The U.S. government, naturally, pulled Dreher's funding.

Pot smoking moms of today are often excellent mothers. So are we in more of a Jamaican-type situation now? Can light pot use be okay, if the mom is doing it for positive health?

Multiple attempts to reach Dreher were unsuccessful.

I find that getting medical professionals to talk on the record about light pot use in pregnancy is like trying to coax an NSA agent into talking about nuclear secrets; any leaked info, they worry, might be used to bad ends.

For example, when I tell Jamila Vernon, spokesperson for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that three unnamed doctors discussed with me, off the record, that a little bit of marijuana probably won't hurt, Vernon seems offended. Instead, she just directs me to the organization's official page, which says "marijuana use is discouraged," and never hooks me up with a doctor willing to be quoted on the record about light use of pot in pregnancy.

Again: dose probably matters. One molecule of THC likely won't make a huge difference, even though we don’t have the research yet to back it up. One pound probably will, that’s kind of common sense. But, with the government shutting down science and doctors terrified of giving dangerous advice, the official prohibitionist line will stay the same.

In her nice house in the burbs, Stella is still holding her baby. She says Sherman was born healthy, at nearly eight pounds, with no health problems at all. "I think that [medical professionals] will get to the recommendation that if you're puking everywhere and you can't get any sleep, vape weed so that you can eat and sleep," Stella says. "That's better for the baby." Stevens, the Boulder nurse and midwife, isn't so sure — but says that softening the absolutist line about marijuana and pregnancy "probably will take a while," if it ever does.

Obviously, Stella isn't this woman's real name. Moms (even more so than doctors) are exceptionally paranoid about admitting to light vaping during pregnancy. Why? Health care providers are supposed to call child protective services when a baby tests positive for THC, says Colorado law. (In practice, a lot of them admittedly don't.)

"With this new joker of a president and all the Dementors following him, I don't want anyone taking my baby away," Stella says, somewhat alarmingly. She looks down at Sherman again, a normal baby with a wide smiling mouth and curious eyes, drooling happily while his mom kisses his forehead and coos to him quietly.

One healthy baby doesn't prove anything, but Stella and many others like her are convinced that the all-or-nothing talk around weed and pregnancy will eventually shade into a lighter hue of gray. Until then, she’ll stay hidden, doing whatever it takes to keeps Sherman’s best interests in mind. As any good mother does.