A Pregnant Woman's Marijuana Use Could Harm The Baby, Doctors Say : Shots - Health News Adults in a growing number of states can now legally use marijuana without a doctor's prescription. But obstetricians worry pregnant women don't realize the drug could hurt their kids.
NPR logo

Is Smoking Pot While Pregnant Safe For The Baby?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/580535951/581503207" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is Smoking Pot While Pregnant Safe For The Baby?

Is Smoking Pot While Pregnant Safe For The Baby?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/580535951/581503207" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This month, California became the world's largest jurisdiction with broad legal access to marijuana. Adults in this state can now buy marijuana without a doctor's prescription. But as Sarah Varney reports, obstetricians here are worried about pregnant women getting the wrong message.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Please, Mommy.

SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: Two-year-old Maverick Hawkins sits on a red, plastic car in his grandmother's living room in Nevada City, a picturesque town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. His play pal Delilah Smith snacks on hummus and delights over her Princess Peppa stuffie.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm Princess Peppa (oinking).

VARNEY: It's playtime for the kids of the provocatively named Facebook group Pot Smoking Moms Who Cuss Sometimes. Maverick's mother, Jenna Sauter, started the group after he was born. She was 22 at the time and feeling lonely and depressed.

JENNA SAUTER: I didn't want to have to, like, hide who I was, you know. I wanted it to be, like, you know, friends who I could be open with, you know, and be like, well, I do this, I do this, I enjoy going into river. I like to maybe smoke a joint at the river.

VARNEY: There are nearly 2,600 members now in the Facebook group. Marijuana is offered up as a harmless remedy for everything from morning sickness to postpartum depression. Delilah's mom is Andria Smith. She's 21 and a week away from her due date with her second child. She bristled recently at a doctor's suggestion that she take half a Norco, a powerful pain pill, for her back pain instead of smoking pot.

ANDRIA SMITH: She's like, well, we know more about Norco and blah, blah, blah, and we don't know that much about marijuana. I was like, my kid can count to 10 before she was even 2, and I smoked pot through my whole pregnancy. She's not stupid.

VARNEY: Smith is not smoking in her third trimester because she doesn't want her baby to test positive for pot. The drug's psychoactive compounds cross the placenta, exposing the fetus to at least 10 percent of the THC that the mother receives. It's unclear how many pregnant women in the United States use marijuana. They may be reluctant to tell their doctors since it's considered child abuse in at least 24 states. But studies show a sharp jump in pot use among pregnant women. Dr. Dana Gosset, an obstetrician at the University of California, San Francisco, says marijuana adversely affects how a baby's brain develops.

DANA GOSSET: Children who have been exposed to marijuana while growing in the womb have poorer performance on visual-motor coordination, visual tasks.

VARNEY: Like catching a ball or solving puzzles.

GOSSET: They may have behavioral problems at higher rates than other children by the age of 14, and interestingly, they are at greater risk for initiating marijuana use, and that is biologically plausible because the effects of the THC in the brain may actually prime that child for addictive behavior, not just to marijuana but potentially to alcohol as well.

VARNEY: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warns breastfeeding moms to avoid pot exposure since some amount of THC passes into the baby. But to Andria Smith's conviction that her daughter Delilah is just as smart as her peers, studies show that children exposed to marijuana in utero don't score worse on reading or math as they get older.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Phew.

VARNEY: Back in Nevada City, the play date of Pot Smoking Moms Who Sometimes Cuss, has moved outside.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right. Where were we?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You want up?

VARNEY: Sauter says parents are uncertain if they'll get in trouble using pot now in California. Indeed, child protection laws in most states remain at odds with liberal marijuana laws. Sauter and Andria Smith both had babies who tested positive for THC just after birth and were visited at home by county social services. Though now they never smoke in front of their children. Sauter says some moms on her Facebook page won't go to the doctor even when they're sick.

SAUTER: They don't want to get tested, and that's dangerous. I mean, you got to be honest because if, like, something does go wrong, we got to know.

VARNEY: Obstetricians don't endorse mandatory testing of pregnant women or newborn babies for THC over concerns that women could be jailed or their babies taken away. But with recreational cannabis now legal in eight states, physicians like Gosset are worried that young children whose brains are rapidly developing will inhale pot smoke in their homes and come to know the world in an altered state. I'm Sarah Varney in Nevada City, Calif.

GREENE: And Sarah is with our partner, Kaiser Health News.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.