Research: Potential Association Between Marijuana and Birth Defects

marijuana and birth defects

Birth Defects Explained

“Congenital anomaly” is the umbrella term which includes both birth defects and fetal malformations, which may be identified before or after childbirth. They may also become evident later in childhood. These outcomes are of particular concern because of their strong association with infant morbidity and mortality. They may also result in reduced quality of life or functional difficulties as the child ages.

These congenital anomalies are heterogeneous and can be related to chromosomal abnormalities, but they may also be caused by events that occur during a fetus’s development. This means that external factors, such as infection with certain diseases or the consumption of specific substances, may adversely affect a child in the womb. In a recent issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, researchers have analyzed the association between marijuana and birth defects. They hope that this research will inform future studies and public health recommendations worldwide.

Potential Relationship Between Marijuana and Birth Defects

Using geospatial methods and data from Canadian provinces and territories, researchers Reece and Hulse have determined that a positive correlation exists between rates of cannabis use and rates of overall congenital abnormalities. Several specific birth defects, like cardiovascular defects, orofacial clefts, gastroschisis, and Down syndrome, were also found to be positively correlated with fetal marijuana exposure.

Other studies have found potential consequences of cannabis use during pregnancy. The March of Dimes outlines these on their resource page. They include…

  • Premature birth – born before 37 weeks
  • Fetal growth restriction – child is small for their gestational age
  • Low birthweight – born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces
  • Anencephaly – one of the most severe neural tube defects; missing parts of the brain, skull, or scalp; these children do not survive long after birth
  • Anemia – not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen
  • Issues with brain development – parts of the brain do not develop properly
  • Stillbirth – dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy

There can also be issues after birth which result in the baby spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Prenatal exposure to marijuana can result in the baby experiencing withdrawal symptoms like tremors or crying, difficulty sleeping, and problems with memory, learning, behavior, depression, and attention.

New mothers should also know that THC and other chemicals from cannabis can pass to the baby through breastfeeding. This can result in the aforementioned issues with brain development. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding mothers avoid using marijuana, alcohol, or other substances for this reason.

Important Data for Americans in a Time of Legalization

This information is especially noteworthy in light of changing public opinion about cannabis. Just this November, four more states – Montana, South Dakota, New Jersey, and Arizona – voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, while Mississippi quietly passed medical cannabis. Now that these initiatives have passed, “one-third of the population now lives in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 70% of all states have embraced cannabis for medical use,” said Steve Hawkins, director of the Marijuana Policy Project in a recent statement.

However, this recent move towards decriminalization and legalization shouldn’t be taken to mean that using cannabis is without risk or consequence. Experts warn that without proper research and public education, people may take the same laissez-faire attitude toward marijuana that most have about alcohol: it’s legal, so it can’t be that bad.

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Like alcohol, cannabis has addictive properties. Aside from the issues covered in this article – marijuana and birth defects, specifically – heavy usage of this drug can result in:

  • Addiction (roughly 1 in 10 marijuana users develop an addiction)
  • Problems with attention, learning, and memory
  • Stunted brain development in younger users
  • Worsened heart health and increased risk of stroke and heart disease
  • Disorientation, unpleasant thoughts or feelings
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Psychotic symptoms (hallucinations and delusions)
  • Increased rates of depression and suicide
  • Heightened risk of using other drugs, depending on family history and social circumstances

Help for Moms Addicted to Marijuana

If you’re an expecting mother who has developed a dependency on marijuana, help is available. At Pine Grove, we offer prenatal, perinatal, and postpartum support for moms dealing with addiction, mental health concerns, and other difficulties. For more information about our comprehensive, specialized programming, please contact our admissions team.

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