Kelly sat propped by pillows, exhausted, shaking with each contraction. She’d been in labor for several days, and she was nearing the end of her ability to cope.
Situations like this have been known to be life-threatening, but no one talked about that at the time because maintaining Kelly’s self-confidence was crucial. And so was the joint of fine, organic outdoor that was being rolled in the next room, grown lovingly by a trusted friend of the expectant mother.
When I first spoke to Kelly (not her real name), I was surprised by her openness. She was eight months pregnant, and said she was going to smoke cannabis during her labor “if necessary.” She hadn’t smoked recreationally for a decade, but was advised by her midwife that cannabis might be the answer for a stalled labor. Her last pregnancy had delivered a stillborn baby, in part because it had taken too long to deliver. She agreed to my presence on the condition that I not use her real name and because, she said, I’m a Reverend: I could perform last rights if her child didn’t make it this time.
A month later, while Kelly struggled to give birth, I asked Kelly’s midwife what gave her the idea that pot might be good for pregnant women. I was presented with Susun Weed’s book, Wise Woman’s Herbal for the Childbearing Year.1
In it, Weed advises that cannabis is an “oxytocic herb” that “can help relax the controlling mind and bring attention to the needs of the body, as well as strengthen the needed contractions.”1 Weed explains that cannabis, combined with hemostatic herbs like Witch Hazel or Lady’s Mantle, can also slow uterine hemorrhages after birth.2
I later learned that Susun Weed’s book is considered a core resource for anyone studying herbalism and women’s health today. Weed has written four books; her first, The Childbearing Year, is currently enjoying a monumental 29th printing.
Although Weed has forgone the acquisition of academic credentials, she has taught health care professionals at prestigious universities throughout the world, and is formally acknowledged as a leader in her field. She founded her own school of herbalism, regularly contributes to the Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women’s Studies, is included in the Who’s Who of Intellectuals, was awarded the Twentieth Century Award for Achievement and was honored as an Outstanding Person of the 20th Century.
If anyone can be trusted to deliver the facts about cannabis and health, it is Susun Weed. For those still in doubt, her assertions about the herb’s powers are backed by literally thousands of years of use, observations and studies.
I put her important book down by an open window, where a cold wind reminded me that summer was nearly over. I considered the candle, book of prayers and anointing oil in my bag ? my tools of final unction ? and as my thoughts returned to Kelly’s ordeal, I couldn’t help but shiver at the thought that she and her baby might not survive.
When I returned to the room, Kelly was puffing languidly, with the help of an attendant who held her arm steady. Her smoky medicine drifted down to her side and was snatched up before it landed on a pillow. Almost miraculously, within a couple of minutes she was sitting up, and her birth partner was shaken awake from another dark corner of the room. She began breathing and the contractions came on more forcefully. Within an hour she delivered.
Afterwards she spoke about her experience.
“My birth was such a mystical experience after I smoked,” she enthused. “I started doing some real breathing, joining with my birth partner. I felt my chakras align with the Great Mother and with the baby. I had a prolapsed cervical lip, and the baby was turned sideways in the birth canal. I could suddenly feel it all inside me. So I did my own surgery. I reached in and pulled the cervical lip back and it dilated within seconds.
“Then I went outside and the sun was rising. I was staring into the sunlight, and in that moment I felt the burning of the so-called ‘ring of fire’ when your [vagina]is totally open. I was crowning for 15 minutes. If I was in any hospital they would have sliced me open! The next thing I know the baby was out of me and in my arms. My sweet little baby girl!”
Some might argue that it is always better to give birth in a hospital, with medical professionals available in case of emergency. Yet for those who wish to use a natural herb like cannabis during pregnancy, giving birth in a hospital can lead to persecution, imprisonment and having their baby taken away.
Shackled after birth
While Kelly held her newborn babe, saved by the grace of ganja, another mother was facing persecution for using med-pot while pregnant, thousands of kilometers away, in Texas.
Alma Baker had used the herb during her pregnancy, to treat nausea and increase her appetite. But shortly after she gave birth in Northwest Texas Hospital, she and her twin babies were drug tested. Both Baker and her children were found positive for cannabis. Under interrogation by police, she admitted to taking occasional tokes in her backyard, and was charged with trafficking to her fetuses.
The practice of drug testing pregnant moms without their consent was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2001 after shocking allegations were raised against a state hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, where non-consentual drug testing was the norm since 1989. Some moms were arrested immediately after childbirth, shackled to the table while still bleeding, and subsequently dragged off to jail.
A class-action suit by some of these women overturned the practice in the US Supreme Court in 2001,3 but despite the court ruling, newborn babies in South Carolina are still routinely tested for the presence of banned drugs. If an infant tests positive, police are informed immediately, and the mother faces mandatory treatment or jail time. For example, in December 2004, a South Carolina judge sentenced Pamela Cruz-Reyes to four years in prison after she and her newborn both tested positive for cocaine.
Unlike the feisty South Carolina women who fought their charges, marijuana-smoking mother-of-twins Alma Baker plead guilty to the charges of trafficking to her fetuses last June, was fined $1,000, forced to take parenting classes and serve 250 hours of community service.
This punishment is a major drain on a new mother with two babies to care for, but still a lighter sentence than she might have gotten. Normally, trafficking in the state of Texas carries a punishment of two to 20 years in prison.4
Baker’s charges were based on a new Texas state law, the Prenatal Protection Act, which has women’s rights groups protesting. The law expands the definition of “individual” to include unborn children, and is based on a national policy drafted by George W Bush earlier in 2004 that similarly expands the definition. According to Republican spin doctors, the change was made so that medical coverage could be extended to the unborn child. The policy change was followed in April with the signing of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
The ACLU was one of the first organizations to recognize some of the dangers of the new federal policy. On the day of the act’s signing into law, Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, railed against the policy’s duplicity in a press release.
“Congress could have chosen to protect pregnant women from violence without assaulting reproductive rights, but it failed to do so,” she said. “There is little doubt that this law is a thinly veiled attempt to create fetal rights and undermine reproductive freedom.”
What the ACLU missed in their zeal to protect abortion rights, and what would soon become apparent with Baker’s arrest, was that the new federal policy might also be used to go after moms who use pot during pregnancy. In fact, it seemed tailor-made to address a historic series of court cases that had been frustrating anti-drug prosecutors for decades.
Fetal drug trafficking
In her excellently documented book From Witches to Crack Moms, University of Victoria Professor Susan Boyd traced pregnant prosecutions back to the 1977 case of Margaret Velasques Reyes, who was charged with child endangerment by the state of California for taking mind-altering drugs while pregnant. The charges against Reyes didn’t stick, however, because the state ruled that the law only applied to live, born children. While still in the womb, they weren’t considered “individuals.”5
After Reyes’ victory, prosecutors tried a new angle. They laid charges against a mom for trafficking to her fetus in the seconds between her child’s birth and the moment the umbilical cord was cut. Jennifer Johnson was convicted of the crime in 1989, but appealed her case with the help of the ACLU and won.
The Bush administration’s new definition of “individual” means that these two women would likely have lost their cases.
Death by pharmaceuticals
Some would say that it is irresponsible for any expectant mother to use cannabis during pregnancy. They argue that it is safest for pregnant women to stick to mainstream medical treatments and pharmaceutical drugs.
Yet physicians today are not very adept at healing situations like prolonged labor or extreme nausea. The modern medical establishment’s only attempt to help mothers suffering from extreme nausea was a disaster: a drug known as Thalidomide. Thousands of babies were born without arms and legs around the world during the 1970’s, as a result of Thalidomide prescriptions.
Since Thalidomide was taken off the market, medical practitioners have been wary of developing aggressive medications aimed at preventing severe nausea.
Yet we have a rough equivalent to Thalidomide today in the form of the drug Cytotec. Doctors commonly administer Cytotec to hasten prolonged labors, or even to speed up a normal labor ? both of which could be stimulated more safely with cannabis. In many cases, babies of Cytotec-dosed moms are delivered intact, but the consequences of not waiting for a natural labor can also be heinous.
The most damning evidence of its dangers to pregnant moms is Cytotec manufacturer Searle’s own warning, issued to doctors, that it should not be used to hasten delivery. Then there’s the US Food and Drug warning that Cytotec can cause “abortion, premature birth, birth defects, and uterine rupture.”
Yet according to a story by investigative journalist David Goodman that appeared in Mother Jones magazine’s January/February 2001 issue, these warnings are not enough to stop doctors from using Cytotec. Goodman told the horror story of Suzanne Altomare who was dosed on Cytotec without being warned of its dangers. She suffered a uterine rupture, her baby dropped into her abdomen, suffocated and was delivered brain-dead. Like other expectant moms who suffered Cytotec-induced tragedies, Altomare lost both her baby and her uterus in the procedure, meaning that she would never be able to fill her loss with the birth of another child. A Freedom of Information Act filed by the magazine revealed that in the three years before Goodman’s article, at least 30 other women had suffered uterine rupture due to Cytotec.
Ina Mae Gaskin ? who helped lead a modern revival of interest in midwifery as part of the 60’s back-to-the-land movement, and whose book Sacred Midwifery is considered an essential read by midwives everywhere ? told Cannabis Culture that doctors still use Cytotec today, and many still fail to warn would-be moms of the potential consequences.
“It’s all about perceived convenience,” she said. “But not for the women. If she suffers from it, that’s anything but convenient. I don’t know how many people have to die before it becomes a subject that’s opened by the major media. This drug, Cytotec, is at least as dangerous as crack, probably way more so. Some deaths get swept under the rug in America and some don’t.”
Meanwhile, although there are no serious complications reported from cannabis, many mothers still face the loss of their children and time in prison if they use it while pregnant. When it comes to treating conditions like extreme nausea or stalled labors, pregnant women need legal, free access to the herbs that have been safely used for generations.
Cannabinoid deficiency syndrome
A serious ailment suffered by many pregnant women is Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a devastating illness which causes vomiting, malnutrition, dehydration, severe weight loss, blood clots, and more serious problems including inflamed pancreas, bloody stool, paralysis, blindness, coma and, in severe cases, death of both mother and child. Some have described it as “morning sickness times a million.”
There is no safe and effective known pharmaceutical treatment for HG, but many women have found immediate relief from nausea and HG through the use of cannabis.
Cannabis-medicine expert and MD Ethan Russo, the Senior Medical Advisor to UK med-pot corporation GW Pharmaceuticals, has suggested that HG may be one of a class of illnesses caused by “endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome.” (Endocannabinoids are the natural body chemicals which are mimicked by THC and other cannabinoids.)
In his paper, Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CED), Russo explores this syndrome in depth. He concludes that CED may cause several illnesses, including glaucoma, for scientists have shown conclusively that the mechanism involved in regulating the eyes’ internal pressure is under “tonic endocannabinoid control.”
Similarly, writes Russo, endocannabinoid systems have been implicated in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and HG.
Accordingly, an HG sufferer who uses cannabis is merely supplementing her body’s inability to produce cannabinoids itself.
? Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency by Dr Ethan B Russo. Neuroendocrinology Letters. Vol 25. February-April 2004.
Pot & pregnancy throughout history
In the Eber Papyrus, the ancient Egyptians noted the use of cannabis to induce contractions.
In Israel in 1993, researchers found the skeleton of a 14-year-old girl who died while giving birth because the baby’s head was too big for her to deliver. The researchers concluded that an ancient midwife may have administered cannabis in an attempt to encourage the delivery, for carbonized cannabis residue was found in the tomb.
The Ninth Century Persian medical expert Sabur Ibn Sahl noted the use of cannabis in his Al-Aqrabadhin Al-Saghir. According to Sahl, the juice of cannabis seeds and other herbs were mixed together to prevent miscarriage and relieve pain in the uterus.
The Codex Vindobonensis, thought to be a 13th Century Italian copy of an earlier, possibly Roman work, describes the use of cannabis for stimulating milk flow in mothers.
The Chinese medical text Pen T’sao Kang Mu, written by Shih-Chen in 1596, described the use of hemp root juice to retain the placenta and prevent hemorrhage immediately after birth.
German folk medicine of the 1800’s recommended rubbing a cannabis preparation on the swelling breasts of new mothers to relieve pain.
In 1851, Dr Alexander Christison used tincture of cannabis to successfully treat pregnant women who suffered from stalled labors, inducing many successful births. His work was reproduced by Dr Grigor the next year.
In 1854, the Dispensatory of the United States acknowledged the use of cannabis to hasten a stalled labor. Subsequently, many doctors in the US and France described their resounding successes in using pot to speed stalled deliveries.
In 1862, Wright noted that cannabis was excellent for relieving nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. He noted one case of extreme nausea: His patient was “suffering to an extent that threatened death, with vomiting” and none of his traditional remedies worked. When treated with cannabis, however, the illness retreated immediately.
The 1800’s saw doctors in the US, France, Britain, and India recognize cannabis’ usefulness in treating uterine bleeding. The same was noted by Sajous and Sajous in 1924.
In 1880, French doctors noted cannabis’ benefits in cases where women hemorrhaged profusely after childbirth.
In 1893-94, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission noted the use of cannabis for prolonged labor.
In 1903, in the US, Dr Bartholow noted the use of cannabis for promoting uterine contractions and was quoted in popular medical texts. The same was noted again in 1924, by Doctors Sajous and Sajous.
In 1960, in Czechoslovakia, a team of investigators discovered that cannabis extract in alcohol and glycerin was excellent for treating tears in the nipples of nursing mothers and thus prevented infection and mastitis.
In 1975, Martin noted that Cambodian mothers used an infusion of flowering cannabis tops and other herbs to stimulate milk production when it was low.
In 1997, Dr Melanie Dreher published her study of Jamaican women which found that they frequently employed cannabis, without any harm to the baby, to prevent nausea during pregnancy.
In a 2003 report, Dr Ester Fride of the College of Judea and Samaria explained how scientists discovered that mother’s milk was also controlled by the endocannabinoid system, and that cannabinoids are even found in the luscious liquid itself. Cannabinoids in mother’s milk, says Fride, are “critical for survival” as they stimulate the initiation of suckling in the newborn.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that a pregnant woman’s level of anandamide, the natural body chemical which is mimicked by THC, rises by about four times when she goes into labor. Researchers tentatively concluded that the rise of anandamide could be the body’s way of inducing labor. This begins to explain how using cannabis helps a stalled labor. Other recent studies have also shown a high concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the uterus.
? Many of these references were taken from Cannabis Treatments in Obstetrics and Gynecology: An Historical Review, by Dr Ethan Russo, MD. The Haworth Press. 2002.
Studying toking moms
Some of the best research into the effects that cannabis-using moms have on their children has been done by Dr Melanie Dreher, Dean and Professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing (CC#15, Dr Melanie Dreher, reefer researcher).
Earlier, methodologically flawed studies done in the US showed that among pot-using pregnant moms, children had a lower birth weight and were more likely to suffer Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But these studies compared pot-smoking women who lived at the poverty level with non-tokers who enjoyed a higher standard of living.
When Dreher corrected for the poverty level by doing a cross-cultural study in Jamaica, she found that children of pot-using pregnant women were more well adjusted, better organized, had “more robust motor and autonomic systems,” were less irritable, and were “more rewarding for caregivers.”
1) Wise Woman’s Herbal for the Childbearing Year, by Susun S Weed. Ash Tree, Woodstock, NY. 1986. p 64.
2) Weed, p 72.
3) From Witches to Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law and Policy, by Susan C Boyd. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC. 2004. pp 112-113.
4) Newborn Twins on Drugs at Birth, by Jim McBride. The Amarillo Globe-News, Texas. June 12, 2004.
5) Boyd, p 108.
6) Criminal Prosecutions Against Pregnant Women, by Paltrow. Reproductive freedom project, NY. 1992.
7) Prenatal Marijuana Exposure and Neonatal Outcomes in Jamaica: An Ethnographic Study, by Melanie C Dreher, Kevin Nugent, and Rebekah Hudgins. Pediatrics, Vol 93, Issue 2, pp 254-260. February 1994.