The effects of marijuana during pregnancy

Published 3:08 pm Thursday, December 10, 2020

As cigarette use has declined to its lowest levels in our country, there has been a notable increase in the use of marijuana- even in pregnancy. As a family physician who cares for most newborns at Vidant Beaufort Hospital, I have seen a dramatic rise in recent years in the number of women testing positive for marijuana use during their pregnancy. Marijuana is not the benign drug many believe it to be. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association this September revealed that just one of the effects of cannabis on the fetal brain is psychosis during middle childhood.

Dr. Stigall (American College of Pediatricians or ACPeds) points out in his 12.07.20 article that a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association studied over 11,000 children. 655 of these children were exposed to marijuana while in the mother’s womb. The study compares children who were not exposed to cannabis, children exposed only until the mother learned she was pregnant, and children subjected to marijuana use throughout the pregnancy.
The results were disheartening. Cannabis exposure in utero not only led to psychotic-like episodes during middle childhood but also difficulty with mental processing, emotional expression, attention span, weight, and sleep. Not surprisingly, those children who had the greatest exposure to cannabis fared worst in all areas.

Another recent study, this one in Canada and involving a whopping 500,000 children, revealed a 50% increase in autism, increased learning disorders, and ADHD.

The above detrimental effects on the unborn child are significant because of the increase in the use of marijuana in pregnancy in recent years. This increase is due to several factors, including the increased acceptability and the decriminalization of marijuana in numerous states. The NC Family Policy Council released an article by Makenna McCoy on 12.08.20 revealing that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week to decriminalize cannabis. Locally, Governor Cooper has created a task force to, in part, examine the decriminalization of cannabis in this state.

An article cited by Dr. Stigall from Nature Psychopharmacology points out the increased acceptance and legalization of marijuana has yielded “national increases in cannabis potency, prenatal and unintentional childhood exposure; and in adults, increased use, CUD (Cannabis Use Disorder), cannabis-related emergency room visits, and fatal vehicle crashes.”

Publicly, smoking cannabis has become widely accepted as a benign and even helpful substance that may aid some with any number of issues, including nausea, anxiety, pain, and insomnia. There may be merit to these adults’ issues, but there is also a downside to its use (a topic for another article). What can no longer be questioned is cannabis use in pregnancy hurts children.

For more information on current trends in pediatrics and what is “Best for Children”, check out the American College of Pediatricians at

J. Wesley Earley, MD, MBA is a pediatric hospitalist with Vidant Beaufort Hospital and a primary care provider with Cornerstone Family Medicine of Washington.