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Rumors abound that marijuana has no effect on the unborn child, and that it is safe to smoke while pregnant.  But research has shown that maternal marijuana use can cause numerous adverse effects on newborns and growing children, some of which can linger into adulthood.

by Joseph Salerno

According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 5.4 % of women in the United States used an illicit drug at some point during their pregnancy. Marijuana was the primary drug of abuse. Overall marijuana use in the U.S. has increased by more than 30% since 2002.

Many studies have identified the potential for fetal harm as a result of marijuana use during pregnancy. Human and animal studies have identified issues with brain development and cognitive function. Marijuana use in pregnancy has been linked to low birth weight, preterm labor, shortened birth length and an increased likelihood for a newborn to be admitted to the NICU. Marijuana exposed newborns may exhibit signs of anxiety or depression.

Delta- 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component in marijuana, binds with partial neurological effect to the CB-1 cannabinoid receptor sites located primarily in the central nervous system, as well as CB-2 receptors of the immune system. Several animal studies have demonstrated THC’s ability to alter neural development, resulting in changes to motor activity and cognitive function in THC-exposed offspring. 

Several studies have reported negative long-term, developmental outcomes. Marijuana exposure in utero has been linked to problems with hyperactivity and impulsivity, attention deficit, diminished memory, and reduced problem-solving skills during adolescence. Altered brain functions and problems with working memory associated with maternal marijuana use during pregnancy, have been measured well into adulthood, at least as far as age 22.


1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-48, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4863. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.

2. Campolongo, P., Trezza, V., Ratano, P., Palmery, M. and Cuomo, V. (2011). Developmental consequences of perinatal cannabis exposure: behavioral and neuroendocrine effects in adult rodents. Psychopharmacology, 214, 5-15.

3. Hayatbakhsh, M.R., Flenady, V.J., Gibbons, K.S., Kingsbury, A.M., Hurrion, E., Mamun, A.A. and Najman, J.M. (2012). Birth outcomes associated with cannabis use before and during pregnancy. Pediatric Research, 71(2), 215-219.

4. Trezza, V., Campolongo, P., Manduca, A., Morena, M., Palmery, M., Vandershuren, L.J.M.J., and Cuomo, V. (2012). Altering endocannabinoid neurotransmission at critical developmental ages: impact on rodent emotionality and cognitive performance. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 6(2), 1-11.


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