“Marijuana use during pregnancy causes autism!” That’s what worldwide television, cable and print news media immediately proclaimed in August 2020 after Dr. Darine El-Chaâr, a maternal fetal medicine specialist and clinical investigator at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada, released a study that does not prove cannabis causes autism.
El-Chaâr’s study looked at 2,200 Canadian women who reported during the years 2007-2012 that they used marijuana while pregnant. The study claims that the women who used marijuana during pregnancy were 1.5 times more likely to have a child with autism than women who didn’t use cannabis during pregnancy.
The study says that the pregnant cannabis-using moms allegedly didn’t use tobacco, alcohol, or opioids during the study, although researchers admit there’s no way they can know that for sure.
The researchers didn’t mention whether the women were using pharmaceutical drugs, impacted by air or water pollution, stress, unhealthy diets, or the proven genetic predisposition to produce offspring with autism. The research didn’t determine the types of cannabis used, the frequency of use or the amounts used. The research didn’t determine if the cannabis was tainted by grow room pesticides or other contaminants.
All of these things that the researchers didn’t fully explore makes their study virtually worthless.
And it’s ironic that cannabis is increasingly viewed by parents, medical specialists, and autistic people as one of the best ways to help people with autism. In an article published in 2019 in the professional journal Frontiers in Biology, researchers report that CBD and CBD-enriched cannabis extract provided relief to autistic people in eight symptom categories evaluated: Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder; Behavioral Disorders; Motor Deficits; Autonomy Deficits; Communication and Social Interaction Deficits; Cognitive Deficits; Sleep Disorders and Seizures.
The research mentioned that the cannabis medications were remarkably safe, producing negligible side-effects. The same can be said for cannabis use by pregnant women. They use cannabis because it makes them feel better and has far fewer and less-severe side-effects than the pharmaceutical drugs women use to deal with the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy and childbirth.
And yet, scary headlines screech that cannabis causes autism, accompanied by articles saying women should avoid all cannabis use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Media outlets like CNN and Fox have a long history of slagging marijuana, claiming it causes mental illness, makes COVID-19 worse, is addictive, and causes other severe mental, social or physical health problems. The anti-cannabis bias harms the public by misleading them about cannabis. For example, CNN said cannabis makes COVID-19 worse, but you’ve probably already read our article about scientists who believe cannabis could help fight COVID-19.
So the big question is, what research can we intelligently rely on when it comes to marijuana use during pregnancy? I suggest we consider the pioneering, historic research of Dr. Melanie Dreher, conducted beginning 50 years ago in Jamaica with women who used massive amounts of marijuana during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and who gave cannabis tinctures and other cannamedicines to their young children.
Dreher is a medical specialist, teacher, and doctorate-holder who earned degrees in nursing, anthropology and philosophy before being awarded a PhD in anthropology from prestigious Columbia University in 1977.
She spent decades in Jamaica studying cannabis because Jamaica’s Rastafarian culture sees cannabis as a medicine, sacrament, and blessing. When she started her research, cannabis was viewed internationally as a dangerous, addictive illegal drug, and Rastafari were persecuted by government officials, especially police.
Still, Dreher had the courage to conduct accurate, pioneering research portraying cannabis favorably at a time when a researcher could be fired or otherwise retaliated against for not portraying cannabis as a menace to society.
She notes that when she first started cannabis research regarding using marijuana during pregnancy, attitudes about cannabis were typified by university cannabis research conducted in Ottawa in the 1980’s. This research allegedly found that even moderate marijuana use (an average of seven joints per week) by mothers during pregnancy caused negative effects in their newborns.
These alleged bad marijuana effects included higher levels of infant irritability, increased tremors and startles, and poorer habituation to light.
Other studies claimed to find similar harms to children due to cannabis use during pregnancy, but Dreher notes that such studies suffer from the same huge flaws that torpedo the credibility of many marijuana studies.
She explained that issues making most cannabis studies unreliable include: use of dubious self-reporting about substance use, incorrect assumptions of correlation, cause and effect, failure to account for use of other drugs (such as tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals and cocaine), and inadequate consideration of the personal trait and health outcomes variations between users from differing genetic, socioeconomic and lifestyle groups.
When Dreher was a graduate student at Columbia University, she started her first field research in Jamaica. Her earliest research investigated a reefer madness claim which says marijuana takes away motivation and energy. She did a study of sugar cane farmers. Sugar cane farming in Jamaica is brutally hard work. The cane cutters used marijuana constantly. They worked hard, met their quotas, and believed marijuana increased their motivation.
Dreher noticed that Jamaican women made cannabis tea and other cannabis medicines that they would give to their families and children. She did a massive study of Jamaican marijuana moms, comparing their children’s health and adjustment with the children of women who had not used marijuana during pregnancy. The women chosen were matched by age, health, and economic and educational status, to minimize the effects of class and environmental differences.
Rastafarian women believe marijuana inherently offers medical and spiritual benefits. Non-Rasta Jamaican women said cannabis alleviates the psychological and physical pains associated with being poor and pregnant.
Women told Dreher that marijuana relieved their depression and feelings of fear or hopelessness, and helped relieve physical discomforts associated with pregnancy.
They used ganja to combat nausea and vomiting typically found in early pregnancy. They enjoyed marijuana’s ability to enhance appetite. Marijuana was also used to combat fatigue, which was especially important to the women who had to work and/or take care of children during pregnancy. Several women used marijuana to help relieve aches and pains, and help them sleep better.
Dreher notes that her research and other studies showed no statistically significant differences in developmental abilities were found, except that children of marijuana-using mothers were superior to children of non-marijuana mothers in two ways: they better organization and modulation of sleeping and waking, and were less prone to anxiety.
Another Dreher study compared children from two small Jamaican communities: Dover and Hawley. Dover is a relatively non-isolated community which is directly connected to a large sugar-cane estate. Hawley is an isolated mountainous community with few roads, services or direct connections to the outside world.
Residents of both communities use marijuana, but Hawley residents could easily cultivate their own marijuana and had access to reliable supplies of it, while Dover residents were forced to buy costly marijuana on the commercial market, which often leads to shortages.
Both communities endure crushing poverty. The poor Dover families Dreher studied didn’t have enough money to send their children to private schools, which meant that their public school environments were often crowded, degraded and unpleasant.
Hawley children suffer a similar fate. They sit three to a desk, and are required to help repair and clean the school, as are their parents.
Children in both communities begin working at an early age. They do laundry, chop wood, carry water, tend farm animals, go fishing, and help with market visits. Of the two groups, Hawley children are the ones who work harder to contribute to their family’s survival.
Dreher found widespread belief that marijuana enhances health. Marijuana infusions are often prescribed for colds, fevers, diarrhea, anorexia, colic, asthma, bronchial wheezing, croup, teething discomfort, and hyperactivity.
Marijuana is also used as a strength-enhancing potion to enable children to perform arduous tasks. The use of marijuana to increase work performance is a common theme in Jamaican marijuana culture–men use it to help them survive the harsh work in the sugar cane fields and elsewhere, women use it to give them strength to do exhausting household chores by hand.
Jamaican marijuana moms believe marijuana helps their children perform better in school. Marijuana does this by increasing children’s ability to concentrate on schoolwork, to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, not to be distracted by school mates or the activities of other classes, to sit quietly in class, to complete homework even when tired, and to handle the stress of examinations.
Ganja-loving Jamaican women describe marijuana as “Wisdom Weed,” and as the “king of bush teas” which sometimes saves lives when doctors are unavailable.
Jamaican marijuana moms have two primary methods for preparing marijuana infusions consumed by children.
Marijuana tea is made by boiling or steeping leaves, buds and stems, then adding large quantities of sugar and, sometimes, milk. Flavoring ingredients such as anise or mint are sometimes added to teas to disguise their taste; family members are sometimes unaware that they are consuming marijuana tea.
Marijuana tonic is prepared by soaking cured or uncured whole cannabis in wine or white rum for several days. The alcohol extracts cannabinoids and terpenoids from the plant material.
Cannabis tonic is stored and used by the dropper or teaspoonful for colds, fever, pain, insomnia, depression or other discomfort. Mothers titrate doses so they give the minimum amount necessary, taking into account the age, weight, health and personality of the child.
The same reefer madness prejudice against marijuana found in the CNN autism headlines was present in Jamaica during Dreher’s research. She says most school teachers hated marijuana, and transferred their hatred onto children they felt were using marijuana.
Dreher asked teachers which children they suspected were using marijuana. In almost every case, the teachers were wrong about who was using marijuana. Instead of having accurate ideas about the effects of marijuana on children, teachers selected children from the poorest families who performed badly in school and were frequently absent, as being marijuana-using children.
For example, teachers suspected a Hawley mom of sending chronic marijuana-using kids to school…but the children in question never used marijuana because their mother was too poor to procure it.
Teachers said two particular sets of children were not using marijuana, and Dreher suspected the teachers made this evaluation because the children’s families were relatively wealthy. Ironically, the children from these families were heavy marijuana users.
And in many cases, children from non-marijuana using families were less successful in school than marijuana children.
Women who were actively engaged in producing, buying, selling and administering marijuana often had the best-run households and the smartest children. One mother, a Rastafarian named Pansy, had her oldest child selling marijuana when Pansy was not at home.
Yet, Pansy’s children were ranked by teachers and principals as among the most intelligent, diligent and well-behaved of all students.
When Dreher suggested to women with poorly-performing children that marijuana might be one of the reasons, the women disagreed with her, saying marijuana can only enhance traits that are already inherent in a child.
“If a child be a dunce,” one woman joked, “using ganja can only make him a smarter dunce.”
Medicinal marijuana use apparently does not lead to increased “recreational” use or poor childhood adjustment, according to Dreher’s research. Instead, the Jamaican children she studied learn to respect the power of cannabis. They learn to use it for increasing one’s health, strength, spirituality and community participation, not for purely recreational purposes.
If Dreher’s reports are accurate, impoverished Jamaican marijuana-using children are far more capable than children in most North American households.
“Most of these children have no access to medical care at all, not even immunizations,” she said. “They live in very harsh situations, enduring substandard housing and schooling, societal prejudice and other inequities. Yet, they are for the most part integral members of their communities, essential for the economic well-being of their families. Most do well in school while also helping with difficult chores at home which require both intelligence and considerable physical strength. We can’t say for sure marijuana contributes to their competency, but we can say for sure marijuana is a major part of their lives and does not appear to be having an overtly negative effect on their ability to enjoy life or do what’s expected of them.”
Dreher is very careful when discussing the applicability of her historical Jamaica cannabis studies to other countries. She says “a Jamaican child’s marijuana consumption supervised by an adult who regulates dosage and frequency is far different from an American child smoking marijuana of unknown origin and purity, purchased from a twelve-year-old in a schoolyard.”
“It is kind of amusing,” Dreher notes, “that in America a woman who in any way exposes her children to marijuana is considered a bad mother, but in Jamaica a woman who has marijuana but does not prepare it for her children is considered a bad mother.”
“I don’t want to ridicule concerns of North American parents who worry about drug use among children,” Dreher continued, “but it’s very possible that marijuana is being blamed for problems it has nothing to do with—such as poor nutrition, poverty, lackluster schools, and incompetent parenting. We need to be very careful not to ignore the social setting that surrounds substance use in different societies when we attempt to evaluate how a so-called drug affects people or society. My Jamaican studies indicate we should re-examine our assumptions and myths about marijuana, especially when they contradict reality.”
Dreher’s credibility and research validity is obvious when you talk to her and look at her studies and publications. Her studies in peer-reviewed clinical journals, and her long-term academic and personal observation of Jamaica’s marijuana-using moms and their children, presents a far more favorable evaluation of cannabis use during pregnancy and early childhood than you usually see in mainstream media.
The members of the Growing Marijuana Perfectly team know at least a dozen women who used a lot of cannabis during pregnancy. Their children aren’t autistic. We know of an autistic child whose mother used prescription drugs (but did not use cannabis) during pregnancy.
We know a non-cannabis using woman who birthed three autistic children, even though after the birth of the first child, her physicians warned she had a genetic predisposition to produce autistic children.
What does all this prove? Nothing.
One thing we are sure of is we trust the wisdom of the marijuana community. Marijuana users are smart, self-aware people. We pay close attention to how marijuana affects us. If marijuana really was causing autism, those of us in the cannabis community would already know it, and would have shared warnings about it amongst ourselves.
If legitimate, reliable, accurate research ever shows a clear causal link between cannabis use during pregnancy and autism, we would accept the validity of that research. But so far, all we’ve seen is flawed, biased research, and mainstream media too quick to slag cannabis.
We suggest that Dr. Darine El-Chaâr and the media stop spreading bogus propaganda against marijuana, which has proven to be the safest, most diversely useful, and least-harmful medical substance humans can use.
They should instead focus on actual causes of autism, including poor health of the gestating mother, or pregnant women using psychiatric drugs. A JAMA Pediatrics research article found that children of women who took antidepressants during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy were 87% percent more likely to develop autism than kids born to women who didn’t take the drugs!