When I first found out I was pregnant, I was excited by the baby. But I was also excited by a new opportunity to study my body and to discover all the ways it would sidestep its normal behaviours and teach me stuff. I couldn’t wait to dig into the literature around cannabis use during pregnancy and to talk openly and honestly about how it squared with my experience of pushing a little human out of my vagina.
I knew that there hadn’t been a lot of research into the topic but that the little research that had been conducted had been fairly inconclusive, or at best, was problematized by the researchers’ inability to isolate conditions and therefore extract meaningful learnings. I wanted to debunk a prevailing narrative that weed use while pregnant was necessarily a bad thing. And so began my reading in earnest.
First I should tell you a little about why I was so eager to challenge what I’d been told about cannabis use during pregnancy. When I was in my late teens I faced my first health scare. By my early 20s, I’d spent six years in acute pain, unable to have sex with my partner, debilitated by constipation that would last weeks, and otherwise languishing in search of a diagnosis. I stopped going to class because sitting through lectures wearing public-appropriate pants was too painful for both my stomach and my vagina. And so, I’d keep my PJs on, slide on an oversized hoodie so no one would see me and head off to the library stacks to pore over medical texts. I was determined to get a diagnosis even after more than a hundred doctors told me I’d completely invented my symptoms.
If this condition had struck any later in life, things would have looked different. I wouldn’t have had the same time or financial security to dedicate the equivalent of a full-time job to researching and volunteering for what were in hindsight objectively sketchy studies that I’d turned up in the classifieds of the local paper.
It took six years before I got a diagnosis and it was no great thanks to my doctors. It was thanks to an obscure reference to a little-studied disease that I found in a textbook during one of my late nights spent in the stacks. It was thanks to a blood test the authors promised would be available soon that sent me running to the university walk-in clinic right away for what would be my first real break. The blood test was now on offer—and so was the celiac diagnosis I’d been searching for so desperately.
Those six years changed everything
I learned that modern medicine is dismissive of women. I learned that no doctor knew my body as I did. I learned that, if I was dedicated, I was powerful enough to heal myself. I learned about weed, which I’ve relied on for support during so many of my personal medical breakthroughs. I learned that the western medical school curriculum is surprisingly outdated and that research is really expensive to conduct, limited significantly by laws and regulations, guided by big pharma, and that the margins of error regularly go unchallenged.
I learned about liability and the climate for doctors—which is very much more at play in the US than in Canada where I grew up—who are forced, as a protective mechanism, to caution strongly against anything they don’t know rather than to admit to the possibility that an alternative approach might work too. And finally, I learned that conventional wisdom around medicine incorporates a disconcerting number of old wives tales that very much still inform how we think about our bodies. My pregnancy has unearthed a whole new dimension for this type of exploration and a whole new set of bullshit rules that I’ve wanted to understand.
I’m 24 weeks right now, which is to say, I’m about half way along and I’ve already switched OBs, because in my non-medical estimation, mine was completely stuck in the dark ages with his advice that I keep exercise to a minimum, take only luke warm showers, avoid sleeping on my right side or back for risk of a stillbirth, and avoid all alcohol and sushi. It turns out none of that is based on rigorous science. The point is once you decide to take matters into your own hands, it’s pretty surprising what you can uncover and how much of what we’ve been told is pretty unsubstantiated.
So, what about the weed and pregnancy thing?
Well, the general rule, if you ask your doctor, is don’t do it. Don’t consume CBD. Don’t consume THC. Don’t smoke it, take it sublingually, eat it, vape it, or apply it topically. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get any combination of that advice. But the reality is that very little research has been conducted because cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug and organizing a formal study which requires pregnant women to subject themselves to potentially risky activity can’t be approved to go ahead.
And that leaves researchers with a very small pool of people upon whom to conduct their research: people who are already using cannabis during pregnancy and of their own volition too. While there are a lot of those people, organizing them for a study is no small feat because even more of them are hiding and (hopefully) well aware of the risk of exposing themselves.
Some of the studies I’ve personally explored are problematic because the mothers being studied for their cannabis use are also smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol during their pregnancies, which renders the findings pretty useless. And finally, anecdotally, we know that a lot of women consume cannabis during pregnancy and give birth to healthy, happy babies.
We just don’t know enough about cannabis use during pregnancy, beyond the potential impact on brain development during the first trimester.
What’s the climate right now?
I got pregnant again last winter after having a miscarriage, but by this pregnancy, any excitement vis-a-vis sharing my pregnancy and weed journey had dwindled almost completely. By then I had done a lot more reading. I’d learned that if a doctor suspected a mother of cannabis use during her pregnancy, they could test the baby for THC at delivery and promptly turn it over to Child Protective Services.
I read about many cases like this. I’d learned that women of color were disproportionately targeted by doctors for suspected cannabis use and that, in many of those cases, a lack of resources meant these stories were never elevated to the mainstream press and mothers were never granted custody of their babies again, even if their babies were perfectly healthy.
It didn’t take more than a few Google searches to turn up huge online communities of anonymous expectant moms talking about how cannabis was the only thing that soothed their hyperemesis gravidarum, a case of severe sickness that makes you throw-up constantly during pregnancy and can compromise the baby, the mom, and the pregnancy as a whole. These communities also revealed stories of women who depended on cannabis to manage their anxiety and depression after doctors forced them off their prescriptions.
And more women still who needed it to sleep so they could maintain their health, and in turn, take care of their families and hold onto their jobs. All of these stories wreaked of desperation: women who had gone to their doctors for help, who had explored every above board option available, and who had fallen back on the only thing that worked.
So, what’s my plan then?
After careful deliberation, I’ve decided that this is nobody’s business but my own. I am not coming out about whether I’m using cannabis during pregnancy as a form of protest, as a conscientious objector. I don’t want my silence to be interpreted as an admission, nor do I want it to be understood as a position against consumption. In 2019, we live by an unspoken rule that we don’t talk about cannabis use during pregnancy, that we live in fear and isolation with our all of our questions.
As a white woman, it’s possible and altogether devastating that an admission on my part could go without persecution, that it could be left alone while women of color could be villainized—or worse. In the end, each of us has our own journey, our own unique circumstances, and choosing the right path for our bodies and our babies is about weighing the risks—political and medical.
But it is a sad day when simply asking questions of our doctors could trigger their suspicions and lead to irreparable damages. I can only really speak for myself when I share this advice: do your own research, weigh the risks, listen to your body, find professionals who you trust; this is a moment where you are especially vulnerable and what you share can have dramatic consequences.
And so, until women stop losing their babies for mindful cannabis consumption during pregnancy? We shout from the hilltops, we shine lights on their stories, and we remember what it means to walk in different shoes. Questions of health should never be so black and white.
This story is a first person account of Anna’s experience with pregnancy and the state of cannabis research around pregnancy in 2019. It is not a recommendation or intended to be used in lieu of professional medical advice. Please do your own research and find people and doctors to trust.