Can pregnant women use drugs? What are the potential consequences of prenatal drug exposure on infants? Dr. Hart, a neuroscientist who learns about drugs, argues that some studies overstate the effect of prenatal cocaine and marijuana exposure on child development. He claims that the difference in the cognitive performance of marijuana-exposed children and the control subjects is not evidence of deficit. Another professional who learns about drug use, Linda A. Parker suggests that cannabis should not be used by pregnant because fetal growth might be negatively affected. Who should we believe?
Dr. Hart criticized the works of Dr. Chasnoff, charging him for spreading the misnomer of “crack babies” and extravagating the negative effects of cocaine use among pregnant women on children. In the 1980s, Dr. Chasnoff suggested that children who experienced prenatal exposure to crack cocaine would develop malformations and learning disabilities. The conclusion was drawn from a study with only about 23 women, and Dr. Chasnoff claimed that the developmental functioning level of those cocaine-pre-exposed children was normal after doing a follow-up study, the myth of “crack babies” became a media hit. Media reported Dr. Chasnoff’s study with images filmed of the baby shaking and claimed it was a symptom of cocaine withdrawals due to the mother using cocaine during pregnancy (Ryan, 2017). Claire Coles, a psychologist at the Emory University Medical School noticed that the pregnant women in Dr. Chasnoff’s study were undernourished and lived in violent environments. Moreover, some mothers used other substances other than cocaine, such as alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy. In conclusion, the myth of “crack babies” started from Dr. Chasnoff’s work and it caused harmful public stigma of pregnant drug users and their newborn.
Although the negative effects of using drugs during pregnancy were overstated in some works, we cannot say that it is safe for pregnant women to use drugs either. A study on maternal cannabis use and the development of the reward system found that prenatal THC exposure would cause long-term impairments in the expression of the Drd2 gene in the offspring (Dinieri et al., 2012). Decreased Drd2 expression was accompanied by reduced dopamine D2 receptor binding sites and increased sensitivity to opiate reward, which indicates that children with prenatal cannabis exposure might be more vulnerable to drug addiction and this risk would persist throughout their adulthood.
Another study looked at the effects of prenatal marijuana exposure and children’s intelligence test performance (Goldschmidt et al., 2008). Women participants reported their frequency of marijuana use during pregnancy and their children were assessed with an intelligence test. Results showed that prenatal marijuana exposure was associated with lower verbal reasoning scores, indicating a potential negative impact on children’s intellectual development. However, among 21 papers on prenatal marijuana exposure on neuropsychological outcomes in children, only 7 found a significant association between them while 14 did not (Sharapova et al., 2018).
The relationships between prenatal drug exposure and children’s development are complicated and the mixed results on prenatal marijuana exposure warn us to view evidence from scientific research with caution. We cannot conclude if using drugs during pregnancy can have irreversible consequences on children’s neuropsychological development, but excessive use of drugs definitely has negative consequences on pregnant women’s health. As a result, it might be a wise choice for pregnant women to avoid using drugs.
Chasnoff, I. J. (2017). Medical marijuana laws and pregnancy: Implications for public health policy. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 216(1), 27–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2016.07.010
Ryan. (2017, July 21). The origins of the crack-baby myth: Chris Calton. Mises Institute. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://mises.org/wire/origins-crack-baby-myth
Goodman, E. (1992, January 11). ‘Crack baby’ hyperbole. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/01/11/crack-baby-hyperbole/e811a350-34bb-4c9d-aa7f-69bbd410899b/
Goldschmidt, L., Richardson, G. A., Willford, J., & Day, N. L. (2008). Prenatal marijuana exposure and intelligence test performance at age 6. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(3), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.1097/CHI.0b013e318160b3f0
DiNieri, J. A., Wang, X., Szutorisz, H., Spano, S. M., Kaur, J., Casaccia, P., Dow-Edwards, D., & Hurd, Y. L. (2011). Maternal cannabis use alters ventral striatal dopamine D2 gene regulation in the offspring. Biological psychiatry, 70(8), 763–769. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.06.027
Sharapova, S. R., Phillips, E., Sirocco, K., Kaminski, J. W., Leeb, R. T., & Rolle, I. (2018). Effects of prenatal marijuana exposure on neuropsychological outcomes in children aged 1-11 years: A systematic review. Paediatric and perinatal epidemiology, 32(6), 512–532. https://doi.org/10.1111/ppe.12505
Hart, C. L. (2022). Drug use for grown-ups: Chasing liberty in the land of fear. Penguin Books, imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Parker, L. A. (2018). Cannabinoids and the brain. The MIT Press.
4 thoughts on “Can pregnant women use drugs?”
Something I found interesting about this blog post is that there is a lot of mixed evidence on drug use during pregnancy and its outcomes. Specifically, the notion that only few studies found a significant association between prenatal marijuana exposure and neuropsychological outcomes in children. I wonder if the participants in the studies that did find the significant associations were using other drugs too.
In this article, I learned that some papers overstate the effect of prenatal cocaine and marijuana exposure on child development which is really interesting. If we don’t look at other papers that show prenatal drug use has no significant effect on child development, then we would definitely believe the “wrong fact.” It’s also interesting to learn that there may be a causal relationship between prenatal marijuana exposure and children’s intellectual performance, we pregnant women should definitely be careful with drug exposure. One thing that was a bit confusing and might need clarification is the word “THC” in the article. It was only mentioned once and had no introduction so I had to look it up on Google to know what it means.
Wow, this is so interesting. The title itself makes you want to read the whole thing. I would say I can’t believe one scientist and one poorly conducted study can spread such large-scale generational misinformation but we have seen it before with the vaccines causing autism study so I am unfortunately not too surprised. I am so glad they did a follow up on the children in that study. Obviously, drug use can’t be good for the baby but it’s interesting how much they have made it seem like doing any quantity of a drug would permanently harm your child. Does this all mean that using alcohol during pregnancy is worse than drugs? We have fetal alcohol syndrome which can cause major issues, is there fetal drug syndrome as well? Does using drugs cause any physical deformities? This is a great and very interesting article. I really like that you talk about the fact that it’s not as bad as its been made to seem but also mention the negative effects that it can have.
Thanks for this blog post, Youyu! I like that you pointed out that Chasnoff’s study had several confounding variables.