Is pot safe when pregnant? Study seeks answer, draws critics

Pregnancy started out rough for Leslie Siu. Morning sickness and migraines had her reeling and barely able to function at a demanding New York marketing job, so like rising numbers of U.S. mothers-to-be, she turned to marijuana.

“l was finally able to get out from under my work desk,” said Siu, who later started her own pot company and says her daughter, now 4, is thriving.

There’s no proof that cannabis can relieve morning sickness, and mainstream medicine advises against use in pregnancy because of studies suggesting it might cause premature birth, low birthweight and infant brain deficits. But the National Institute on Drug Abuse is pressing for more solid evidence. Many of those studies were in animals or complicated by marijuana users’ other habits and lifestyles.

“I don’t want us to cry wolf,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, the agency’s director. “We have to do these studies in a way that can identify risks.”

With nearly $200,000 from her agency, University of Washington scientists in Seattle are seeking clearer answers in a new study investigating potential effects on infants’ brains. The agency is supporting three similar studies in other states.

In Seattle, they’re enrolling pregnant women during their first trimester who are already using marijuana for morning sickness. Researchers don’t provide the pot, and the use of other drugs, tobacco and alcohol isn’t allowed. Infants will undergo brain scans at 6 months and will be compared with babies whose mothers didn’t use marijuana while pregnant.

For government and university authorities, it’s worthy research that takes advantage of a booming trend. Recent data show the number of pregnant U.S. pot users has doubled since 2002, with 7 percent reporting recent use and higher rates in some states.

But some opponents of recreational marijuana who think the science is settled have complained to the university and the federal government, calling it bogus research that endorses drug use and needlessly endangers fetuses.

The criticism underscores the challenges of investigating how drugs of any kind affect pregnant women and their offspring.

“There are so many reasons NOT to study drugs — particularly fear of causing birth defects. But the results would be no studies of the drugs’ efficacy during pregnancy, or the risks to the fetus,” said Dr. John Lantos, director of pediatric bioethics at Children’s Mercy hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s risky to do studies of potentially risky drugs but it’s risky not to do studies.”

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