I sat on the stairs next to my husband, completely defeated. I hadn’t kept food down in weeks. I was ten weeks pregnant, and I was sicker than I’d ever been in my life. I’d developed hyperemesis or extreme morning sickness around my sixth week, and I couldn’t stop throwing up.
My nausea and vomiting didn’t confine itself to just the AM hours. It was constant, round-the-clock. I couldn’t sleep or walk more than a few steps without becoming dizzy and sometimes fainting. I’d been in and out of the ER getting fluids, but they were a temporary fix. Watermelon and dry Eggo waffles were the only foods I could keep down. My OBGYN prescribed me medication after medication that was supposed to stop the vomiting, but none of them worked.
I was losing weight instead of gaining, and my high-risk OB told me he was running out of options. He wasn’t sure if I would be able to carry the pregnancy safely. I was seriously considering terminating.
“My husband hugged me and went off to buy some weed, realizing if we didn’t find a solution, there would be no baby to protect in the end. Cannabis was the one medicine that I knew worked for me.”
And then came the talk; “If I do this, we can’t tell my doctors about it,” I told my husband. “They could report me. They could take the baby away and send me to jail for abuse. They’ve done it to mothers before.”
My husband hugged me and went off to buy some weed, realizing if we didn’t find a solution, there would be no baby to protect in the end. Cannabis was the one med that I knew worked for me in the past.
I’d researched cannabis use during pregnancy. I knew that there had been at least one small study done on the effects of cannabis on the fetus and that there had been no negative effects discovered. The Jamaica study was discussed endlessly in the online hyperemesis support groups I joined.
It’s important to understand that research around cannabis use during pregnancy—or any other time, for that matter—is hard to come by when there are legal or ethical implications around conducting it. And as with any medical recommendations, when we don’t know, the recommendation is always to exercise utmost caution. But the absence of data shouldn’t be interpreted as conclusive evidence in itself, if that makes sense.
I’d had migraines and other health issues my entire life. None of the medications worked, and none of my doctors took me seriously. It wasn’t until I was 21 and studying abroad, when I developed a migraine so severe I had vomited for three days straight, unable to hold in any food, that I first tried cannabis. The first hit off the joint took the edge off the nausea. The second and third relieved the headache. After the fourth hit, I was able to finally eat. I’d found my miracle drug.
I had been diagnosed with POTS syndrome, a condition of the autonomic system, two years previously. I would have episodes where my blood pressure would tank, and my pulse would shoot up sky-high, and I would faint. I was put on a blood pressure meds and warned that if I became pregnant while taking it, there was a strong chance that my baby would have severe congenital disabilities. When I became pregnant after taking my birth control pill three hours late one day on my honeymoon, we knew the odds. We decided to take them.
Two hours after he left, my husband came back with a pipe, a lighter and an eighth of mid-grade cannabis. I loaded the pipe, sent out a prayer into the universe, and took a hit. The waves of nausea started to abate. My muscles began to unclench, to relax. For the first time in weeks, my body felt peaceful. I sat there on the step for another hour, talking to my daughter in my belly. I told her I was sorry, that I hoped I wasn’t harming her. My husband sat next to me and held me as I smoked. We ordered a pizza that night. I kept down a whole slice.
“I sat there on the step for another hour, talking to my daughter in my belly. I told her I was sorry, that I hoped I wasn’t harming her.”
It was the first hard decision I would make as a parent. My pregnancy didn’t get any easier. At the beginning of my second trimester, I began to dilate and to have contractions. I was put on bedrest. We bought a vaporizer and I continued to use cannabis. It didn’t get rid of all the hyperemesis, but it gave me breaks from it—times when I could get in some nutrition.
It helped with the headaches, muscle spasms, and anxiety. While I didn’t tell them about the cannabis, my doctors monitored me closely. First weekly. Then twice, then three times a week I would lie down in the back of a cab and go to the hospital, where the high-risk team measured my belly and dilation, and counted contractions.
We were all relieved when a 3D scan revealed in my third trimester that the baby’s heart was OK and didn’t seem to have been impacted by the blood pressure drug I was on when I conceived. For their part, the doctors didn’t ask what I was doing differently, although they were aware that something was helping my hyperemesis and it wasn’t their meds. We left it unsaid.
When I went into labor a week before I was scheduled to be induced, and we left for the hospital, I knew that I might not be returning home with my baby. I knew that I might not be returning home at all.
The delivery, like my pregnancy, was rough. I didn’t question when the nurse took blood. Or after the doctor cut me open and vacuumed my daughter out of me, because I didn’t have the strength or stamina to push. The busy room full of doctors and nurses became silent. “Why isn’t she crying?” I asked. “Is she OK? Why isn’t she crying? Let me see her!”
The nurse called from across the room, laughing. “She’s not crying because she’s smiling. She’s OK. She’s perfect. Her APGAR score is perfect.”
“She’s not crying because she’s smiling. She’s OK. She’s perfect.”
The nurse placed my baby in my arms, and I looked into her eyes and told her how nice it was to meet her. She stared up at me. I touched her tiny cheek and tiny lips and kissed her forehead. I smelled the top of her head. Then I burst into tears.
The next day, I had my OB tie my tubes. I didn’t know what was wrong with my body or why my pregnancy had been so difficult, but I did know that I couldn’t handle another one like my first—especially when I had a child to take care of.
Three days after she was born, we went home, my husband, my baby and I. A nurse helped us make sure the car seat was installed correctly and sent us on our way. No one mentioned the blood they took while I was in labor.
But a few days after we got home, I read my discharge summary. The hospital included the results of my blood test. It was positive for marijuana. The doctors had turned a blind eye, which I could only imagine was thanks to my privilege as a white woman.
“Mothers of color … are turned into child protective services and have their children taken from them for using medical cannabis during pregnancy, even in states where it is legal to consume.”
In one study by Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, black women were found ten times more likely than white women to be reported to governmental authorities for substance use. And in a survey of New York hospitals, medical professionals serving low-income parents were more likely to test new mothers for drugs—and to turn over positive results to child protection—than those serving wealthier parents.
I was lucky. Mothers of color, or who are immigrants, low-income, or living with disabilities—they’re not always so fortunate. Mothers are readily turned over to child protective services and have their children taken from them for using medical cannabis during pregnancy, even in states where it is legal to consume. I will never know if my OB advised not to report me, or if he even cared. I can only be grateful to the nurses and other staff who read the results and decided not to call child protective services.
It took me ten years to finally discover what made my pregnancy so difficult. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder, and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. Both conditions can cause serious pregnancy and delivery complications.
I still use cannabis to manage the symptoms from my medical conditions. My doctors are now aware and openly supportive of it. My one hope is that this openness will soon extend to all pregnant people and parents who are medical cannabis users—and that women of color stop being disproportionately targeted by both the medical system and child protective services. We all need it.
This story should not be interpreted to be in any way supportive of cannabis consumption during pregnancy or used as an alternative to professional medical advice, which should be sought before making any changes to your health and wellness regimen.