Pregnant Women Face Discrimination Within the Cannabis Industry

By:Madison R. Margolin 

September 6 , 2018 


Janko Ferlic

Design Lead @ Brainforest Agency

When Keira Fae discovered she was pregnant, she was living in southern California and working at a dispensary. Oblivious to the child growing inside her, Keira had no idea she was actually pregnant until she began to show three months in. When she finally figured it out, the dispensary allowed her to stay there and work. "It was normal to me, I didn't see anything wrong with working at a dispensary and being pregnant," she says. "But I was judged by coworkers or patients who would walk in." Eventually, the judgement became so untenable, she decided to quit. The cannabis industry wasn't the only place where Keira felt judged: Having told her gynecologist that she'd been smoking cannabis in the first trimester, the doctor bore judgement upon her, too. 


 When Keira Fae discovered she was pregnant, she was living in southern California and working at a dispensary. Oblivious to the child growing inside her, Keira had no idea she was actually pregnant until she began to show three months in. When she finally figured it out, the dispensary allowed her to stay there and work. "It was normal to me, I didn't see anything wrong with working at a dispensary and being pregnant," she says. "But I was judged by coworkers or patients who would walk in." Eventually, the judgement became so untenable, she decided to quit. 

With little support from the cannabis and medical communities, Keira decided to start researching the topic on her own, only to discover a gaping dearth of information. "So that's where my journey started, researching the different methods, different cannabinoids, and all that matters and plays into how your body absorbs the medicine [when you're pregnant]," says Keira, who went on to found Cannabis & Motherhood. "It's still definitely a grey area, but in contrast with pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to pregnant women, it seems like cannabis is a lot safer." 


Whether it be drugs to kill pain, alleviate nausea, or quell seizures, pregnant mothers are left with the independent decision to take their health — and their babies' health — into their own hands. Few are lucky enough to have their physician's blessing to use cannabis. Among those few, however, is Jackie Sponseller, cannabis activist, media mogul and publisher of this magazine. Diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 10, Sponseller is no stranger to the cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to epileptics. "They're very toxic to the body. I know what a pharmaceutical does to my body, but I can't imagine what it does to a developing baby," she says. "For me it's a no brainer." And though her neurologist, gynecologist, and cardiologist are all on board with her cannabis use, Sponseller too has nonetheless faced discrimination in the dispensary environment. 


"At the end of the day women are allowed to purchase alcohol and cigarettes up until the day they give birth, and we all know what alcohol can do to pregnancy," Sponseller points out. Budtenders shouldn't police women's choice to medicate, especially when that choice might mean life or death, as it does for Sponseller. 


"There's a 20 percent chance you can die from each seizure," she says. "And if you have a baby, it's even more of a toll. Women who have epilepsy are more sensitive to having seizures during menstruation or any type of hormonal time." Typically, Sponseller can control her epilepsy very well with oils, but the pregnancy has exacerbated her condition. "Since I've been pregnant, it's been very difficult if I don't stay on top of it. I can seize all day."  


While for most most pregnant mothers, the choice to medicate with cannabis is less dire than it is for Sponseller, many are left with little available information or input from their own doctors. "The doctors and scientists who know the information about cannabis can't say certain things [because] their hands are tied by what the government wants them to say to pregnant moms, which is 'just don't use cannabis,' but that doesn't take into account that cannabis can be less harmful than other medications," says Dr. Michele Ross, PhD, CEO of Infused Health and author of Vitamin Weed: A 4-Step Plan to Prevent and Reverse Endocannabinoid Deficiency. 


"Cannabis can actually boost brain growth," Ross says. "And for pregnant moms [who consume cannabis], none have shown any type of birth defect, which is the opposite of what you see with alcohol or pharmaceuticals." The most well-known negative effect of consuming cannabis while pregnant is low birth weight, but in most cases that doesn't pose a real danger to the baby. 


The problem with most of the only small handful of studies done on cannabis and pregnancy is that they look only at smoking marijuana, Ross points out. "And God only knows what they're smoking," she adds. There's no published research that looks at the different effects from varied cannabis strains, doses, or modes of consumption, like edibles, tinctures, pills, or patches. 


There should also be more research looking at CBD during pregnancy, Ross adds, noting it can be a good alternative to chronic pain treatments like opioids or to epilepsy drugs. "CBD is safer, non-toxic and non-addictive, and can boost neurogenesis," she says. "It should be considered like a prenatal vitamin. Imagine if mom doesn't have enough endocannabinoids, than the baby doesn't either." Endocannabinoid deficiency is more common than we realize, though often neglected by Western medicine, Ross says. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

But while budtenders may help patients pick out their weed, it's not the job of the dispensary to hand out medical advice she, adds. "I think that until we know there are harms to the baby, then I think it's something we should consider on a case-by-case basis. Mom has the right to choose what she puts in her body." 


While the effects of cannabis and pregnancy have occupied somewhat of a blind spot in the medical community, a small handful of studies have investigated the topic. In a 1980s study from Jamaica, researcher Melanie Dreher found that babies who were exposed to cannabis prenatally performed better on reflex tests than other babies in the control group. Another 2002 study by researcher Ethan Russo looks at cannabis as traditional medicine in ancient obstetrics and gynecology, finding the herb to be a safe and efficacious alternative treatment. Meanwhile, a 2005 study from the University of Victoria in British Columbia found cannabis to be useful in mitigating nausea and vomiting from morning sickness. 


Pregnant mothers often experience various sober states that could be harmful to the baby. "We know that if you're stressed out during pregnancy, it's bad for the fetus. If you're vomiting and can't eat, it's bad for their development," says psychiatrist Dr. Julie Holland, editor of nonprofit book, The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis. While the fewer drugs a pregnant mother takes the better, Holland suspects it would be safer for mother and baby to use cannabis for intractable vomiting instead of the prescriptions commonly used. There is also the issue of commonly prescribed psychiatric medications like SSRIs. "I'm not convinced that there is no effect on the developing brain when they're modifying the amount of serotonin in the mother's brain," says Holland. By the same token, she adds, "there are real risks to a baby who has an anxious mother and is bathed in cortisol day in and day out."


When given the choice, cannabis might be the safest treatment overall. "Cannabis stimulates neuroplasticity, so we're talking about an increase in connections not fewer," she says. And when it comes to questions about psychoactivity, like "will my fetus get high," Holland suggests a baby's brain may not even have the capacity for such. In fact, a baby's brain may be more impervious to the disrupting effects of cannabis than an adolescent brain, since the former is making connections in the brain, rather than undergoing a process of pruning characteristic of teenage neural development. "The developing fetus isn't in a position to have consciousness," Holland explains. "There's no default mode network that's formed yet." ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Nonetheless, if a pregnant mother does in fact choose to use cannabis, she should try to avoid smoking it, according to Dr. Ethan Russo, director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoid Institute. "We don't recommend smoking, but additionally, this is different than recreational use where the aim is to produce an altered state, whereas in medicinal use the aim is to control symptoms," he says. "It's important for people to know that cannabis has been a traditional medicine in gynecology from time immemorial and was mainstream medicine for ob/gyn issues in the U.S. between 1850 and around 1940 when it became outlawed." 


While cannabis and pregnancy has heretofore been taboo territory, it deserves more modern research, Russo asserts. The greatest danger for women who consume while pregnant is that their children could be taken away from them by Child Protective Services at birth. "There are places in the U.S. where women have lost custody of their children because of positive blood tests for THC metabolites, and that's totally unjustified," he says. "Unless there's more overriding evidence that someone is unfit, then this isn't a justifiable measure." 


Unfortunately, the likelihood of an infant getting drug tested may depend on race, state of residence, or even the hospital where you deliver, Keira explains. "It happens more with women of color, I hate to say it, if you have a record, or you're under suspicion," she says. And women have no control over it. 


For her part, Keira is continuing to educate mothers on the effects of cannabis during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and other aspects of parenting. She holds monthly meetings and even throws Irvine-based summits on women's health. 


With so little institutional focus on women's health, especially as it relates to cannabis, mothers are taking matters into their own hands and educating each other on the information the medical community has yet to accept or spread around, themselves. 


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