What Do Legalization, Marijuana, and Pregnancy Have in Common?

Woman with marijuana joint

One of the most concerning things about increasing marijuana legalization is that individual states are quickly legalizing cannabis before truly understanding the potential risks in doing so. These states are not allowing for enough time to research, study, analyze, and firmly explore the ramifications of legalization.

This is the epitome of “winging it,” except, in this case, the ramifications in doing so could be quite severe.

For example, what kind of effect is marijuana legalization going to have on the numbers of women who use marijuana before, during, and after their pregnancies? Most women know that they should not use cannabis during pregnancy. But will the numbers of women who ignore that advice increase as marijuana is legalized? New research seems to indicate that the numbers will go up, and that’s something to be concerned about.

New Research Presents a Cause for Concern in the Marijuana Legalization Issue

A study called, “Self-reported Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Cannabis Use Among Women Before and During Pregnancy“ was published in the Journal of the American Medical Administration on July 19, 2019. The study showed, pretty clearly, that since states began to legalize marijuana, women are becoming more likely to use cannabis before pregnancy and during pregnancy.

This is an excellent example of a negative consequence of marijuana legalization that no one thinks about when they go along with the percentage of Americans who support legalization.

The study took place in California, the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana. (Medicinal cannabis became legal in this state in 1996, and recreational cannabis was approved in 2016). The study examined marijuana use trends among women leading up to and during pregnancy, examining such trends from 2009 to 2017. Sure enough, following recreational legalization in 2016, more women used marijuana just before and during pregnancy in 2017 than in 2009.

Now that we know that marijuana-use patterns among expectant mothers are on the rise, why is that harmful? As it turns out, there is a good deal of research that indicates marijuana use during pregnancy is harmful to an unborn fetus. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has researched this subject extensively, publishing documentation that gives warnings like, “Human research has shown that some babies born to women who used marijuana during their pregnancies display altered responses to visual stimuli, increased trembling, and a high-pitched cry, which could indicate problems with neurological development.”

In another study, NIDA researchers also talk about how marijuana use during pregnancy can increase the odds of a still-birth, a grievous occurrence that no one would want to experience.

Why We Need to Pull the Reins Back on Marijuana Legalization

There are a lot of differing viewpoints on marijuana. Opinions differ on legalization, on whether or not we are moving in the right direction with this drug, and so on. A lot of people are against marijuana legalization because they think this substance is harmful, or because they believe it is habit-forming or even addictive.

But let’s try to find some common ground. Probably the single most logical reason why we should not legalize marijuana is that there have not been enough studies done on the drug yet. It’s almost as though states are legalizing the drug to meet a political demand, or because the current culture of the people in those states demands it. States are legalizing for political and cultural reasons, not for scientific, proven, fact-based reasons.

Quoted below is an excerpt from a letter written by Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The letter discusses marijuana and why we should be hesitant to legalize it:

“Marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception…. It also affects brain systems that are still maturing through young adulthood, so regular use by teens may have negative and long-lasting effects on their cognitive development.”
“Whether smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana has therapeutic benefits that outweigh its health risks is still an open question that science has not resolved. … Marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception…. It also affects brain systems that are still maturing through young adulthood, so regular use by teens may have negative and long-lasting effects on their cognitive development. Also, contrary to popular belief, marijuana can be addictive, and its use during adolescence may make other forms of problem use or addiction more likely.”

That excerpt only just skims the surface of the wealth of information that Dr. Volkow and the rest of the NIDA researchers have put together on the potentially harmful effects of marijuana use.

Young Mothers Are the Most at Risk

Worried young woman

When it comes to pregnancy and marijuana use, the demographic that seems most at risk and that needs correct information and support the most are young pregnant mothers. In another message from Dr. Volkow, it becomes all too clear that, legalization or not, marijuana use is harmful to young people. That harm and those side-effects are exacerbated when it is a young, pregnant mother who is using the drug.

“Beyond potentially lowering IQ, teen marijuana use is linked to school dropout, other drug use, mental health problems, etc.”
“Beyond potentially lowering IQ, teen marijuana use is linked to school dropout, other drug use, mental health problems, etc. Given the current number of regular marijuana users (about 1 in 15 high school seniors) and the possibility of this number increasing with marijuana legalization, we cannot afford to divert our focus from the central point: Regular marijuana use stands to jeopardize a young person’s chances of success—in school and in life.”

Helping a Pregnant Mother Break Free from a Marijuana Habit

Marijuana use during pregnancy can lead to having a low-birthweight baby. Research data backing this was published both in the U.S. National Library of Medicine and in CDC documents. Even marijuana use very early on in pregnancy can lead to an impairment of fetal neurodevelopment, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

If you know a young woman who is expecting a baby, you should make it a priority to ensure that she does not use marijuana (or any other drugs for that matter). Even in the initial stages of pregnancy, marijuana use can harm the unborn child (not to mention the harmful effect it has on the mother).

Happy young mother

And if you know a woman who seems to be struggling with discontinuing her marijuana use, it will likely be necessary to get her help through a residential drug treatment center. While marijuana is not often addictive, it can be. If a woman becomes pregnant and cannot cease her marijuana use, the best strategy is to get her checked into a qualified addiction treatment center. It needs to be a center that is set up for pregnant moms to attend. Such a program will provide the most effective pathway for getting Mom clean and sober for good.

It might seem excessive to send someone to drug rehab for a marijuana habit. But when marijuana use stands to harm two people instead of one, and when the mother cannot stop using on her own, the situation becomes that much more dangerous. A qualified treatment center can provide the tools that Mom needs to get clean and to ensure a better future for herself and her child.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.