Cannabis is one psychoactive drug used worldwideand its popularity is growing: could surpass the US market for recreational cannabis sales $72 billion by 2023.
As of early 2023, 21 US states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use for people 21 and older, while 39 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized it for medical use.
The growing wave of legalization and the dramatic increase in potency of cannabis For the past two decades, scientists and public health experts have been concerned about the potential health consequences of cannabis use during pregnancy and other vulnerable periods of development, such as the teenage years.
I’m a developmental neuroscientist specialized in studying what is known as the endocannabinoid system. This is an evolutionarily ancient system found in humans and other vertebrates that produces natural cannabinoids such as THC and CBD.
Cannabis and its compounds interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce their effects. THC and CBD are the most well-known cannabis extracts and can be synthesized in a lab. My lab also studies the risks versus the potential therapeutic value of cannabis and cannabinoids.
People often assume there are no risks in using cannabis or cannabinoids during vulnerable life stages, but they base that on little to no data. Our research and that of others suggests that cannabis use during pregnancy and adolescence can carry numerous health risks that the public should be aware of.
Cannabis use during pregnancy
Nowadays, more and more pregnant people are using cannabis compared to ten years agoand some studies show that nearly 1 in 4 pregnant adolescents report using cannabis.
Many people who use cannabis may not have known they were pregnant and stopped using it when they found out. Others report using cannabis for its touted ability to relieve pregnancy-related symptoms, such as nausea and anxiety. However, studies do not yet confirm those health claims. In addition, the potential drawbacks are often downplayed by pro-cannabis marketing and messages from pharmaciesinterest groups and even midwives or doulas.
In addition, doctors and other healthcare providers are often not well informed or feel well equipped to discuss it possible risks and benefits of cannabis with their patients, including during pregnancy.
While research shows that most people are pregnant see little to no risk in the use of cannabis during pregnancy, the data show that there is clear cause for concern. In fact, a growing number of studies link prenatal cannabis exposure to a greater risk of premature birth, lower birth weight And psychiatric and behavioral problems in children. These include, for example, problems with attention, thinking, social problems, anxiety and depression.
Cannabis and the developing brain
When cannabis is inhaled, consumed orally, or ingested by other routes, it can easily be done cross the placenta and deposit in the brain of the fetusdisrupt brain development.
A recent study from my lab, led by medical student Mohammed Faraj, found that cannabis use during pregnancy can shape the developing brain in a way that detectable even a decade later.
We used data from the National Institutes of Health Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Studythe largest long-term study of brain development and the health of children and adolescents in the US. It has followed more than 10,000 children and their families aged 9 to 10 over a 10-year period.
Through that analysis, we linked prenatal cannabis exposure to changes in functional brain networks in 9- and 10-year-old children. In particular, prenatal cannabis exposure has been found to disrupt communication between brain networks involved in attentional control, which may explain why children exposed to cannabis in utero may develop problems with attention or other behavioral or mental disorders as they develop.
While having alcohol abuse steadily declining among young people since 2000, cannabis use in the US has shown the opposite pattern: it increased by 245% in the same period.
Data reported in 2022 from the Monitoring the Future survey of more than 50,000 students in the U.S. found that nearly a third of 12th grade students reported used cannabis in the past year, including vaping cannabis. Yet only about 1 in 4 12th grade students see a lot of harm in using cannabis regularly. This suggests that many teens use cannabis, but few consider it possible negative effects.
Cannabis use in adolescence
Research shows that the adolescent brain is prepared to engage in risky behavior such as experimenting with cannabis and other substances. Unfortunately, thanks to the continuous development of the brain, the adolescent brain is also particularly sensitive to the effects of cannabis and other substances. Indeed, many neuroscientists now agree that the brain continues to develop well into the second and even third decade of life.
Consistent with this vulnerability, research shows that, compared to those who did not use cannabis during adolescence, those who started using it during adolescence are at an increased risk of developing depression, suicidal thoughts, psychosis And lowering IQ during adolescence and adulthood. Neuroimaging studies also show residual effects of adolescent cannabis use on brain functioning even later in adulthood.
Read beyond the label
Despite common misconceptions that cannabis is “all natural” and safe to use during pregnancy or adolescence, the data suggests there are real risks. In fact, in 2019, the US Surgeon General issued an opinion against the use of cannabis during pregnancy and adolescence, stating that “no amount … is known to be safe”.
Cannabis can be harmful to the developing brain disrupts the developing endocannabinoid system, which plays a critical role in shaping brain development from conception through adulthood. This includes neural circuits involved in learning, memory, decision making and emotion regulation.
While much of this research focuses on cannabis use, there is also other research that is addressed similar conclusions for THC And CBD in other forms. Although CBD is widely available as an unregulated supplement, we researchers know almost nothing about its effects on the developing brain. Note that this harm applies not only to smoking, but also to ingestion, vaping, or other ways of consuming cannabis or its extracts.
In my opinion, it is important that consumers are aware of these risks and recognize that not everything stated on a label is scientifically substantiated. So before you pick up that edible or vaporizing pen for stress, anxiety, or sleep or pain management, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider about any potential risks, especially if you’re or could be pregnant or are a teen or young adult.