Medical Marijuana: A Surprising Solution to Severe Morning Sickness
By Erin Hildebrandt
Issue 124 May/June 2004
As is the case for many young women, my indulgence in recreational drugs, including alcohol and caffeine, came to an abrupt halt when my husband and I discovered we were pregnant with our first child. To say we were ecstatic is an understatement. Doctors had told me we might never conceive, yet here we were, expecting our first miracle. I closely followed my doctor’s recommendations. When I began to experience severe morning sickness, I went to him for help. He ran all of the standard tests, then sent me home with the first of many prescription medicines.
Weeks passed, and, as the nausea and vomiting increased, I began to lose weight. I was diagnosed as having hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe and constant form of morning sickness. I started researching the condition, desperately searching for a solution. I tried wristbands, herbs, yoga, pharmaceuticals, meditation—everything I could think of. Ultimately, after losing 20 pounds in middle pregnancy, and being hospitalized repeatedly for dehydration and migraines, I developed preeclampsia and was told an emergency cesarean was necessary. My dreams of a normal birth were shattered, but our baby boy, though weighing only 4 pounds 14 ounces and jaundiced from the perinatal medications I’d been given, was relatively healthy.
When, six months later, I again found myself pregnant, I was even more determined to have a healthy and enjoyable pregnancy, and sought out the care of the best perinatologist in the area. At first, I was impressed. This doctor assured me he had all the answers, and that, under his expert care, my baby and I would never experience a moment of discomfort. However, as my belly swelled, I grew more and more ill, and my faith in my dream doctor began to falter. What convinced me to change healthcare providers midstream was this doctor’s honesty. He admitted that, due to constraints imposed on him by his malpractice-insurance company, some routine procedures that he knew to be harmful would be required of me. We left his office that day and never went back.
As I searched for a new doctor, I ran across information about midwifery and homebirth. At first, I thought this was simply crazy. Have a baby at home, with no doctor? No way! I thought. But, as I began examining the statistics, I discovered an unexpected pattern. In studies comparing planned home versus hospital births, planned homebirths, with a midwife in attendance, have lower rates of neonatal morbidity and mortality. Not only that, but midwives’ rates of such invasive procedures as amniotomy and episiotomy are much lower. Everything I had believed about birth and medicine suddenly came into question. I located a midwife and made an appointment to see her.
We were very impressed with this woman’s education and experience, and were delighted to invite her into our home to share in our second birth. She gave me many new ideas to try to abate the morning sickness, which still plagued me. But despite her best efforts with herbs, homeopathic remedies, and even chiropractic care, my illness remained intractable.
About this time, I ran into an old, dear friend from college. When Jenny came to visit me one particularly awful day, we shared stories of the old days, and I soon found myself laughing as I hadn’t laughed in years. Despite being interrupted by numerous trips to worship the porcelain god, it felt wonderful to share some time with her. But when we began talking about my burgeoning belly, I broke down in sobs. I told her about how I was desperately afraid of what this malnutrition was doing to my baby. I explained how my midwife had told me that preeclampsia appears to be a nutritional disorder of pregnancy, and I didn’t know how I could avoid it if I couldn’t eat.
Jenny listened and cried with me. Then, she tentatively produced a joint from her jacket pocket. I was shocked. We had shared a lot of these in college, but I had no idea she still smoked. Slowly, she began telling me that she knew some women who smoked marijuana for morning sickness, and it really helped them. She hadn’t known anyone with as severe a form of the illness as I had, but reasoned that if it works to quell the side effects of chemotherapy, it must work well.
Understandably, I was concerned about what kind of effect marijuana might have on my baby. The only information I had ever heard on the subject was that it was a dangerous drug that should not be used in pregnancy. We discussed for some time the possibility that it could be harmful, though neither of us had enough information to make any sort of truly informed decision. What finally convinced me to give it a try was Jenny’s compelling reasoning. “Well, you know that not eating or drinking more than sips of tea and nibbles of crackers is definitely harmful, right? You might as well give this a try and see what happens. You don’t have much to lose.”
She was right. I was 32 weeks along and had already lost 30 pounds. I had experienced four days of vomiting tea, broth, crackers, and toast. Nothing would stay down long. In an excited, giggly, reminiscing mood, I told her to “Fire it up!” I took two puffs of the tangy, piney smoke. As it took effect, I felt my aches and nausea finally leave me. Jenny and I reclined against my old beanbag, and I began sobbing again and unintelligibly thanking her—here was the miracle I had prayed for. A few minutes later, when I calmed down, we ordered a pizza. That was the best pizza I had ever tasted—and I kept down every bite.
It was sad that I had to discover the benefits of this medicine late in my second pregnancy, through trial and error, and not learned of them long before—from my doctors. This experience launched a much safer and more intelligent investigation into the use of cannabis during pregnancy.
I spent hour after hour poring over library books that contained references to medical marijuana and marijuana in pregnancy. Most of what I found was either a reference to the legal or political status of marijuana in medicine, or medical references that simply said that doctors discourage the use of any “recreational drug” during pregnancy. This was before I discovered the Internet, so my resources were limited. The little I could find that described the actual effects on a fetus of a mother’s smoking cannabis claimed that there was little to no detectable effect, but, as this area was relatively unstudied, it would be unethical to call it “safe.” I later discovered that midwives had safely used marijuana in pregnancy and birth for thousands of years. Old doctors’ tales to the contrary, this herb was far safer than any of the pharmaceuticals prescribed for me by my doctors to treat the same condition. I confidently continued my use of marijuana, knowing that, among all options available to me, it was the safest, wisest choice.
Ten weeks after my first dose, I had gained 17 pounds over my pre-pregnant weight. I gave beautiful and joyous birth to a 9 pound, 2 ounce baby boy in the bed in which he’d been conceived. I know that using marijuana saved us both from many of the terrible dangers associated with malnutrition in pregnancy. Soon after giving birth, I told my husband I wanted to do it again.
Not one to deny himself or his wife the pleasures of conception, my husband agreed that we would not actively try to prevent a pregnancy, and nine months after the birth of our second son, I was pregnant with our third child. This time, I had my routine down. At the first sign of nausea, I called Jenny, who brought me my medicine. In my third, fourth, and fifth pregnancies, I gained an average of 25 pounds with each child. I had healthy, pink, chubby little angels, with lusty first cries. Their weights ranged from 8 to 9 1/2 pounds. Marijuana completely transformed very dangerous pregnancies into more enjoyable, safer, and healthier gestations.
But I was caught in a catch-22. Because my providers of perinatal health care were not doctors, they had no authority to issue me a recommendation for marijuana. In addition, I chose not to tell them I used cannabis for fear they could refuse me care. Finally, even if I could get a recommendation, I knew of no compassion clubs (medical marijuana cooperatives or dispensaries) in my area. I had to take whatever my friends could find from street dealers.
Many times I would go hungry, waiting four or more days for someone in town to find marijuana. I became so desperate for relief that I would contemplate driving to a large city like New York and walking the streets until I could find something. Fortunately, each time I almost reached that point, some kind soul would show up with something to get me through. What else is a sick person supposed to do when the only medicine that helps, and is potentially life-saving for her baby, is unavailable? I would much rather go to a store and purchase a product wrapped in a package secured with the seal of the state in which I live than buy from some guy on the street.
Along the way, I discovered the benefits of using marijuana to treat other disorders. At times, I have been plagued by migraines so severe I would wind up in the emergency room. I would receive up to 250 milligrams of Demerol, and sometimes, when Demerol failed, even shots of Dilaudid. Thanks to my sporadic use of marijuana and a careful dosing regimen, I have not been to an emergency room in more than three years. [In September 1999, the Food and Drug Administration approved an application for a rigorous study designed to investigate the medical efficacy of marijuana on migraine headaches.—Ed.] In addition, I was diagnosed as having Crohn’s disease. After months of tests and treatments for my symptoms, I began using a dosing method similar to what I’d used for migraines, and I found that, once again, marijuana provided more relief than anything else. All in all, I’ve been prescribed more than 30 truly dangerous drugs, yet the only one that has provided relief without the associated risks is one many doctors won’t even discuss, much less recommend.
My history with medicine and with marijuana has been more extensive than average. It is my sincere belief that if the American public were told the truth about marijuana, they could not help but support an immediate end to cannabis prohibition. Even I believed it was dangerous, until I began researching the issue. What I discovered is that not one person has ever died from smoking marijuana. The same cannot be said for the results of the misuse of some of our most commonly used substances, such as caffeine, aspirin, or vitamin A. In addition, marijuana is no more a “gateway drug” to other substances than is caffeine or alcohol. Most kids try these things long before they experiment with cannabis. And, finally, unlike such legal drugs as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, marijuana is not addictive. As with Twinkies or sex, a user can come to psychologically depend on marijuana’s mood-altering effects; however, no physical addiction is associated with cannabis.
Now I find myself mother to five beautiful, intelligent, creative children for whom I would lay down my life in an instant. I have been blessed with the challenge of helping them grow into responsible, hardworking, and loving adults. I have also been blessed with the challenge of protecting them from a world fraught with dangers. There are those who would have me believe that, in order to protect my children from drug abuse, I must lie to them; that I must tell them that marijuana is dangerous, with no redeeming qualities. Some say I should go so far as to tell them that it couldn’t possibly be used as a medicine. Then there are those who would say that if I ever find out that my child has experimented with marijuana, I should turn her over to expert authorities in order to impart a lesson. While this does send a message to the child, it is not the message I want to send.
What I teach my children, ages nine and under, about drugs is that medicine comes in many forms, and that children should never touch any medicine (categorized broadly as a pill, liquid, herb, or even caffeinated beverage) unless it is given to them by a trusted adult. My cabinets are full of herbs, such as red raspberry leaves and rosemary, which I use in cooking and as medicines. I have things such as comfrey, which I use externally, that could be dangerous if taken internally. Like all responsible parents, my husband and I keep all medicines, cleaning products, and age-inappropriate items, such as small buttons, out of the reach of our kids and safely locked away.
However, I am aware that the day may come when my kids figure out the trick to the lock, so I add an extra measure of safety by educating them about the honest dangers of using medicines that are not needed. In addition, by sharing my views about the politics behind the issues, I am teaching them another, equally important lesson. As Santa Clara University School of Law Professor Gerald Uelmen stated last year at the medical marijuana giveaway at the City Hall in Santa Cruz, California, “We are teaching our children compassion for the sick and dying; only a twisted and perverted federal bureaucrat could call that the wrong message.”
I have also tried to impart a deep respect for natural healing. By using cool compresses and acupressure for headaches before grabbing a pharmaceutical such as acetaminophen, I’ve taught them the importance of avoiding dependence on drugs. I have also shown them the benefits of the wise and careful use of pharmaceuticals by using them when they were my best choice. I try to instill in them a sense of reason and resourcefulness by honestly presenting the answers to their questions and admitting what I do not know, but searching until I find the answer.
When our oldest child overheard my husband and me discussing marijuana prohibition, it opened up a wonderful line of communication about the subject. I gave him a very basic explanation: that marijuana is a plant that can be used as a medicine. I explained that it could be overused and abused, as well. Then I told him that this plant is illegal, and that people who are found to possess marijuana can go to jail. The question I found myself floundering to answer, however, was when he asked, “Why would the police put someone in jail for using medicine?”
It is long past time parents stood up and took notice of the abuses being leveled on our children by well-intentioned but misinformed governing officials. We need honest and responsible drug education that treats children as intelligent pre-adults who are learning how to live full and healthy lives in a dangerous world.
They need every shred of information we can give them, so that they do not choose to huff butane or snort heroin simply because they survived smoking the joint we told them was dangerous, and because they therefore assume we must be lying about the rest. We need to provide an open line of communication so that, if they ever have to face areas of ambiguity or situations we have neglected to discuss, they will feel comfortable coming to us, and not friends or the Internet, to advise them when they need it most. In order to do this, we must first educate ourselves.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION
See www.mpp.org/legislation/state-by-state-medical-marijuana-laws.html for details of each state’s medical marijuana statutes.
For more information about nausea or marijuana, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: "Nausea During Pregnancy" no. 52; "Marijuana in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding," no.42; and "Coping With
Nausea in Pregnancy," no. 30.
Erin Hildebrandt is a writer, an activist, and a happily married, suburban mother of five. Her website is at www.parentsendingprohibition.org.
Photo by Lloyd Wolf.