Why some mothers keep using cannabis during pregnancy and breastfeeding

CGYBNOUWN4I6RAML5G3TJDGYPUAfter living with chronic pain since adolescence, being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in her 20s and undergoing two bowel surgeries by her early 30s — which removed more than 100 centimetres of her small intestine — a Montreal-area woman finally got a prescription for medical cannabis.

But it was her rheumatologist who suggested it — to cope with her rheumatoid arthritis pain.

Amidst all these health challenges, the last thing she and her husband expected was a pregnancy.

The thought of using cannabis while pregnant was a big adjustment, said “Kate” — whose real name CBC agreed to withhold because she works with children and fears losing her job.

“I was very concerned that, even though I was being careful…​perhaps I wasn’t providing my child with the best start to life,” she said.

Kate knows the risks as outlined by the medical community.

Health Canada warns that substances in cannabis pass from the mother’s blood to her fetus and pass into breast milk, and that can lead to low birth weight and longer term development effects.

“There is sufficient good evidence that the component THC within cannabis interferes with development of the fetal or newborn brain and, as such, may cause behavioural and learning disabilities in the child,” said Dr. George Carson, former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.

When it comes to using cannabis during pregnancy or breastfeeding, his advice to women is “don’t do it,” said Dr. Carson, adding that five to 15 per cent of pregnant women are using it.

Even though I’d been followed by all my physicians, still there was that judgment.– ‘Kate’, mother living with chronic pain

CBC contacted two of Kate’s health care providers who confirmed Kate has made a considerable effort to educate herself about potential risks.

Before taking medical cannabis, Kate was prescribed opioids — Oxycontin and Dilaudid — and did not want to take those medications while pregnant.

Avoiding opioids

In some cases of pregnant women living with chronic pain, using cannabis “does seem to be sometimes the least evil of the possible alternatives,” said “Julie,” a Montreal area obstetrician whose real name CBC agreed to withhold because she fears professional repercussions.

It’s difficult to advise patients about cannabis use during pregnancy because the research on its long-term effects is limited, based on small sample sizes and often focused on recreational use involving smoking, Julie said.

In newborns whose mothers used cannabis during pregnancy, “as far as we know, there are not any withdrawal symptoms and we have no idea what the long-term effects are,” she said.

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