Commentary: A simple, urgent message about pot and pregnancy

First 5 Orange County is trying to spread the message to pregnant women that cannabis can be harmful to their babies.
(Photo illustration by Getty Images)

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, stay away from cannabis.

It’s a simple message that First 5 Orange County is hoping to impress upon families, as the legalization of cannabis has blurred the line between “legal” and “OK.” While it’s perfectly legal to use marijuana in California for those over age 21, it is not OK to expose newborn or unborn babies to the harm associated with cannabis use.

Smoking anything is detrimental to your health and can have lasting negative health consequences for your newborn or unborn baby. The chemicals from marijuana are particularly concerning, as they are stored in fat cells and can therefore affect an infant for an extended period of time.

In fact, a new UC San Diego study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics examined breast milk samples from marijuana-using, nursing mothers and found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active component of marijuana, was detectable in the majority of breast milk samples up to six days after last use.

Any form of marijuana (edibles, oils, etc.) can be passed from a mother to her infant through breast milk, possibly affecting a variety of neuro-developmental processes in the baby’s developing brain.

Like cigarettes, smoking marijuana is associated with lower birth weights, which sets babies up for immediate problems, such as respiratory issues, as well as long-term issues, such as increased risk of high blood pressure and diabetes later in life.

Some studies suggest that use of cannabis during pregnancy increases the risk of stillbirth and adversely affects how a baby’s brain develops. Other research finds that children exposed to marijuana while in the womb have poorer visual-motor coordination and a higher rate of behavioral issues.

First 5 Commissions across the state, including Orange County, have successfully allocated state tobacco tax revenue to support the health and early education of young children and families for nearly 20 years.

In response to studies that show marijuana use doubling among pregnant women nationwide, the commission believes now is the time to educate women and families about the perils of cannabis use during pregnancy and while nursing. We ask that local obstetrician/gynecologists join us in discussing marijuana use the same way they do alcohol and tobacco use.

Health care professionals’ roles can be particularly vital, as some women who diligently stay away from cigarettes and alcohol during pregnancy, continue to use cannabis throughout their pregnancies.

Part of this disconnect is marijuana’s image as “natural.” In fact, numerous online mothers groups and dispensaries will recommend cannabis to other women as a natural remedy for the ailments common to pregnancy, from morning sickness to back pain to post-partum depression.

Yes, cannabis is a weed, but so is hemlock. “Natural” is not the same as “harmless.” Getting this message out can make a significant difference in the health and welfare of Orange County’s children for decades to come.

Another possible reason for marijuana’s growing popularity among pregnant women and new mothers is the fact that THC is increasingly recommended for medicinal use for a variety of illnesses. However, for women who are pregnant, thinking about becoming pregnant or who are nursing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises physicians to search for alternative, better-studied medicines to recommend.

We agree. As the leader in early childhood health and education, the commission hopes to serve as a resource for families in this county and as a voice against the use of cannabis in pregnancy and while nursing.

Yes, cannabis is legal. But with the health and long-term welfare of thousands of Orange County children at stake, we strongly believe that using marijuana in any form during pregnancy or while nursing is not OK.

Dr. Maria Minon is vice president of medical affairs at CHOC Children’s and a commissioner with First 5 Orange County .