“I was surprised at the robust positive impact using cannabis could have on an infant’s health.”

An interview with Dr. Melanie Dreher, former Dean of Nursing, Rush Medical Center

Babies and cannabis is a touchy subject. I learned that last week when I wrote a rebuttal to a New York Times’ story saying that using marijuana during pregnancy is possibly harmful to the baby. That story got an unusual amount of feedback, both pro and con, but not along the gender lines I expected. In fact, men told me that I was crazy to even suggest using cannabis while pregnant. Most women told me they wish they had known about cannabis because the nausea and fatigue ruined their lives, sometimes for weeks on end.

The story of weed and pregnancy is far from complete, but to clarify, I spoke again to Dr. Melanie Dreher, the former Dean of Nursing at Rush Medical Center in Chicago. In 1994 Dreher published an exhaustive, five-year ethnographic study of children born to a group of mostly poor, rural women in Jamaica who used cannabis daily while pregnant. For five years Dreher tracked their development and learned that the cannakids were more advanced than those born to moms who didn’t smoke, a result she calls “pretty darned interesting and a little counterintuitive.”

In your study the ganja kids socialized and made eye contact more quickly, and were easier to engage than the babies of non-smokers. On tests for verbal ability, motor, perceptual and quantitative skills, memory and mood, ganja kids scored higher.

I could not have anticipated those results. Nor could I have anticipated the silence surrounding them when they were released. This was the most comprehensive study on impact of cannabis and pregnancy ever done and only now is it getting any attention.

What made it so comprehensive and thorough?

Several factors. It was the most comprehensive ethnographic study ever done on the subject. We tracked the moms for 2.5 years for the neonatal section and another three years for the tracking of the kids from years 2 to 5 year olds

These women were not multi substance users, only occasionally would they have a cigarette or a beer. Almost all other studies can’t account for this crucial factor.

Plus, our researchers had amazing depth of knowledge about their subjects which ensured accuracy of reporting. I had Jamaican anthropology assistant in the field observing them every day. They met in their homes, at the river or market, not in a lab. And the result is that the subjects were much more honest about their use, be it tea or inhaled. If someone said, “I didn’t smoke this morning,’ they could say, ‘Oh really, who smoked that roach in your ashtray?’

Do you think that doing it out of the US hindered your findings from getting out?

People don’t want to cite it and think they can’t cite it because it was done in another country, which of course makes human physiology completely different.

I was surprised that among readers of this blog women were more receptive to using than men.

Cannabis is the 3rd most commonly used substance during pregnancy — cigarettes and alcohol are the two most commonly used, which is crazy given what we know about the dangers of those two. When you talk about using cannabis to deal with hyperemesis [nausea] and the fatigue of pregnancy and having other kids to take care of and going to shop and work and running the house, women resonate with that. They feel validated. Many women are doing this during pregnancy.

You know, I’ve now presented these findings in universities, Rotary Clubs, all over the world. People are not really surprised when they hear of the findings. Usually I hear something like, ‘Yeah, my niece did it and I was worried but her baby was fine.’

What about the results surprised you?

I anticipated no difference between users and non-users and I was surprised at robust positive impact it could have on an infant’s health. I’m not saying smoking MJ during pregnancy will make a healthier baby. The way I explained it was that women who were users had a social and economic competence that permitted them to be better moms and create a more wholesome neonatal environment. For example, many sold cannabis themselves — they could be home taking care of babies and remain economically solvent selling marijuana.

NIDA [The National Institute on Drug Abuse] was surprised too, that’s why they shut me down. They wanted me to find something bad about marijuana. They said ‘We can’t continue to fund you. Our money comes from Congress.’ It was just too risky funding a study that clearly Congress would not want.

Your study showed cannabis encouraged weight gain. The often quoted study cited in the New York Times said the babies lost weight…

All the other studies had no idea of the other drugs or substances these people were taking. You just can’t get into people’s real usage especially with an illegal substance, unless you establish an intimate relationship with people. And yes, our babies weighed more at birth than the control group.

Are you an advocate of legalization?

I’m not a supporter of legalization though I definitely support decriminalization. What bothers me when I get letters from women who have suffered from indignities from local law enforcement…who were tested without their knowledge, or put in jail and had their babies taken away…those indignities.

I once asked the Attorney general’s office in one state, ‘Why on earth would you take away a child if the mother is using marijuana?’ ‘We just think a child is at risk if there’s marijuana in the house,” was what he said. I said, “Yet you have no problem if there’s a gun in the house? Or aspirin or dishwasher detergent or bleach or any of the things that can really kill babies? C’mon!”

How’d you get into this topic?

When I was a grad student at Columbia a professor had gotten funding to do a cross cultural study of ganja in Jamaica, Greece, Costa Rica. I was a nurse and in anthropology department. When I first went down I was only studying men. My dissertation was titled, “Working men and ganja.”

In fact, Jamaican men didn’t like women to smoke except in pre-sexual context. When women started smoking a sort of a social change thing going on, the relationship between men and women was changing. And that’s when I honed in on my topic.

The National Institutes of Health wouldn’t fund you to return to Jamaica to do a follow up? Did you ever go back on your own just out of curiosity?

I went down several years ago and we did our best to seek them out. I found 18 of the original kids who are now adults and they are all doing great. No casualties yet. I haven’t seen all of them.

You’re 74. You recently retired from your job running the Nursing department at Rush University. Do you use cannabis?

I’m not a routine user but have enjoyed it on occasion.

You’re my hero this week.