With the legalization of cannabis only a few months away, one of Canada’s top medical organizations is warning women about the risks the drug poses if used during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, marijuana use can lead to preterm birth and low birth weight, as well as lower IQ and hyperactivity after a child is born.
“We want to make sure women understand just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Jocelynn Cook, chief scientific officer with the SOGC. “The science does suggest there are effects on pregnancy and on fetal development.”
The organization is launching a social-media campaign aimed at women of childbearing age to inform them of the potential risks of cannabis use ahead of Oct. 17, the day the drug is scheduled to become legal in Canada. A YouTube video cautions that cannabis has more than 400 chemicals that can be passed to a fetus during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Despite the warnings, many women believe marijuana is safe, even in pregnancy, Dr. Cook said. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found 70 per cent of women surveyed believe consuming cannabis once or twice a week during pregnancy poses no, or only slight, risks. The study also found 4 per cent of pregnant women reported using cannabis in the previous month.
Last month, a study in the same journal found about 70 per cent of Colorado dispensaries recommend marijuana to pregnant women to alleviate nausea.
One of the reasons cannabis is perceived as safe is because it is a natural herb, Dr. Cook said. Public health experts have to counter those messages with facts about potential risks, she said.
The campaign to inform women about the dangers of cannabis is akin to similar campaigns from years ago about the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding, she said.
And, much like alcohol, cannabis use during pregnancy or when breastfeeding is a difficult area to study. For instance, researchers can’t ethically give pregnant women cannabis and wait to see the effects. As a result, there is not a large scientific body of evidence and many of the studies pointing to dangers such as preterm birth or cognitive impairments were conducted a few decades ago.
Dr. Cook said agencies such as Health Canada must commit to funding cannabis research in order to properly understand the potential health risks.