The use of medicinal marijuana continues to be a hot-button health issue in America. While cannabis has been shown to be effective in treating a variety of conditions ranging from epileptic seizures and digestive disorders to glaucoma and arthritis, questions remain as to whether the herbal remedy is being overprescribed — and more importantly, whether its potential risks outweigh the benefits.
One such case that has sparked controversy and concern involves a mother from Oregon who has refused to stop using medicinal marijuana, even though she is currently breastfeeding.
On the advice of her midwife, the mother in question smoked marijuana throughout her pregnancy to combat nausea and anxiety. Her baby was born eight weeks early and required an incubator to survive; however, it is unclear whether the marijuana triggered the premature birth.
Since the mother refused to comply with her doctor’s recommendation to not use marijuana while breastfeeding, she was required to sign a waiver acknowledging the potentially adverse effects it could have on her newborn baby.
“The mom has the right to smoke marijuana, but the child has no say in the matter, and that’s what’s not right,” plastic surgeon Dr. Andrew Ordon says.
Although research on how marijuana may impact a developing baby is limited, pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears explains that the studies that have been conducted show potential links to pre-term labor, low birth weight, developmental delays and cognitive and/or psychiatric disorders later in life. He adds that THC, the primary psychoactive chemical compound in marijuana, tends to concentrate itself in the fatty tissues of women — particularly in the breasts.
“What we do know is [that] THC interferes with the connections that are trying to develop in the cerebral cortex,” Dr. Sears explains. “That’s the part of the brain that is involved with thinking and memory, and those changes are permanent.”
Registered nurse and medical cannabis expert Mary Lynn Mathre has a different opinion on how marijuana affects a developing baby. She explains that the human body naturally has an endogenous cannabinoid system.
“We all have receptors in our brain [and] throughout our body that are waiting for this chemical called a cannabinoid to start chemical processes,” she says. “In 1992, we found out that we make a cannabinoid called anandamide. It’s present in all female mammals’ breast milk. It’s essential to the survival of a baby: a cannabinoid, which helps them feed.”
Until more studies are conducted on the long-term effects of marijuana exposure in babies, The Doctors stress that expectant mothers and breastfeeding mothers who use the plant medicinally should err on the side of caution.
“When it comes to kids, who have no choice, you are better safe than sorry,” ER physician Dr. Travis Stork says. “Anything that a mother could take that could potentially affect either the unborn child or the child who’s breastfeeding — I think you take it out of the equation.”