DU Study Dives Into Marijuana Use and Pregnancy

Marijuana use is believed to be dangerous during pregnancy, but studies are limited.
Marijuana use is believed to be dangerous during pregnancy, but studies are limited. iStock/ruizluquepaz
Is it okay to use cannabis while pregnant?

That’s the question University of Denver psychology professor Dr. Pilyoung Kim heard when first becoming interested in studying how poverty can affect pregnancy.

Kim remembers recruiting pregnant women in their first trimesters, asking them about substance use. After hearing a significant amount of pregnant women ask about cannabis and whether it was okay to use during pregnancy, Kim started looking further into how cannabis can affect a pregnancy. A study at DU has been diving into the topic for the past year.

“When we talked about the response to that question, we realized scientific literature doesn’t have a for-sure answer about if cannabis is safe,” Kim says. “It’s an important question, and no one else was really asking that question.”

With it in mind, Kim applied for funding from the National Institute for Drug Abuse so she could find answers. The NIDA has cautioned pregnant women not to use cannabis, but also says more research needs to be done on how marijuana can affect pregnant women and their unborn children.

There have been other studies done on the subject; a northern California study recently reported that more pregnant women are using marijuana as state legalization efforts spread, while a 2019 study from Canada says marijuana use during pregnancy can increase the risk of a premature birth.

Denver Health conducted its own survey on the subject in 2018, when two women "mystery callers" contacted dispensaries across Colorado to ask if it was okay to use marijuana for morning sickness. According to the study, 69 percent of dispensary employees recommended marijuana for these symptoms, sometimes after nudging and persuasion from the callers. The study's methodology was criticized by industry leaders but led to new state health campaigns and dispensary employee training. The lead author of the Denver Health study, Dr. Torri Metz, is a contributing researcher in DU's study, as well, but could not be reached for comment.

Pregnant women who experience symptoms such as severe nausea may try using marijuana in order to help treat their sickness, according to Kim, while others may use it to lessen anxiety. Without having a clear answer from scientists about whether marijuana is safe to use during pregnancy, it's hard for future mothers to make an informed decision.

“Women have to make a decision about what to do, and have to guess or go off anecdotes from friends and family,” she explains. “There’s an urgency, as a scientist, to do this study and share these findings with pregnant women so they can make a clear decision.”

The study doesn't force pregnant women to smoke weed for research purposes. Instead, Kim meets with pregnant women who are using cannabis on their own, asking them why they use cannabis while pregnant, and how much of it they use. After the baby is born, the mother and child go to University of Colorado Boulder for imaging of their respective brains.

“We try to approach this as open-minded as possible,” Kim concludes. “There are participants who report cannabis use for many different reasons. The more research that can be done on this topic, the better, in terms of informing the public.”

The study won't be completed for another few years; pregnant women interested in joining the study can contact the Family and Child Neuroscience Lab at DU by emailing [email protected] or calling 303-871-3096.
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