Prenatal Pot Use on the Rise in Alaska

About 1 in 14 Alaska women are using marijuana while pregnant and that ratio appears to be going up. That’s based on the state’s pregnancy risk monitoring survey which is a randomized mail and phone questionnaire hundreds of new moms complete a year.

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The survey offers a glimpse into the lives of Alaska women who consume pot while pregnant. For instance, we know that these women tend to be younger, under 24. Kathy Perham-Hester coordinates the survey.

“It would tend to be an Alaska Native woman versus women of other races. There’s a higher proportion of women who have had at least part of their prenatal care paid for by Medicaid. So they might be lower income.”

She says that data also points to where these women live.

“Proportionally more in the northern region of the state and the southeast region of the state.”

PRAMS, or the pregnancy risk assessment monitoring system, has been surveying women in Alaska since the 1990s. Forty other states also have similar programs. It’s funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest data is from 2002 to 2011. Over that span, the percentage of women who consumed pot during pregnancy more than doubled. But one question it didn’t include was “why?”

“You know, we did not ask any question like that. So no, I’d have to say I’m not aware of that.”

A young Juneau mother teases her baby: “You want to be interviewed?” she jokes.

We’re withholding her name because she fears she could lose her job this summer working in the tourism industry. She’s 26, married and the mother of a baby boy.

“Everybody comments on his alertness and how he just smiles and laughs. He’s only two months old but he’s very smart. I mean sure, everybody says that about their baby,” she laughs.

During her pregnancy, Juneau mom smoked pot about two times a week. She says she didn’t experience any nausea while she was expecting. But she did have painful cramps.

“So I would smoke to get rid of those cause you can’t really take any other medication for it, which worked for me because my cramps would diminish enough, I could go swimming or I could go on walk.”

She says she didn’t really start smoking pot until she was in college. And now smoking it recreationally is more conducive to her lifestyle.

“I enjoy marijuana a lot more than alcohol. Like don’t get me wrong, a cold beer on a great sunny day like today is amazing. Especially if you can be on top of a mountain. Nothing beats that. But I’m kind of done binge drinking and partying hard on the weekends.”

Instead, Juneau mom likes to do yoga…high. She’s interested in living a “healthy lifestyle” and doesn’t smoke tobacco. She pays for private health insurance and enjoys spending time outdoors. She says before getting pregnant, she used cannabis medically to soothe her fibromyalgia.

“Smoking marijuana like, really helped me get over that hump because I didn’t have to be on Xanax and Cymbalta all those crazy mind-altering drugs. So that’s kind of when I really started.”

But smoking pot prenatally, wasn’t a decision she says she came to lightly. She did her own online research. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services recently issued a fact sheet on marijuana use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, outlining some of the risks.

Dr. Jay Butler is the chief medical officer for the department.

“Well, there’s a lot that we don’t know about marijuana in terms of harms or possible benefits. But right now I think the data points to harms.”

He says THC, the active ingredient in marijuana can enter the bloodstream of a developing fetus or nursing infant.

“There are a number of epidemiological studies that suggest that exposure to marijuana early in life, particularly heavy use may affect brain development and intellect. Is it proof of causation? Not necessarily. But I think the data are strong enough that there’s reason to be concerned.”

But our young mother wasn’t convinced.

“So to me the data wasn’t really solid,” she said. “It didn’t provide enough evidence to really go with that.”

Juneau mom says before she made the decision to smoke pot while pregnant, she needed advice from one more person.

“I asked my mom. And she actually admitted that she did while she was pregnant with me and my siblings. So that kind of made it a little bit more OK after my own research I had done. I could talk to her about it and she told me her experience. And I was like, ‘well I came out normal,’ at least I think. So it can’t be terrible.”

If a medical expert feels like a child has been born drug-affected, an investigation could be launched by the Office of Children’s Services. Juneau mom thinks that’s why more women don’t talk about it…because they’re afraid.

“You hid when you smoked or you kept it private. So why would you ever want to speak about it to someone who might blow the whistle on you?”

Since she started breastfeeding, she says she’s stopped smoking pot regularly for now. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services says, with changing attitudes toward marijuana, there are concerns the number of women smoking pot while pregnant could continue to go up.