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Dr. Melanie Dreher’s Study on Prenatal Exposure to Cannabis Use

Background on Dr. Melanie Dreher

Dr. Melanie Dreher, known to be one of the most well-respected academicians in the world, is Dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing and is the Associate Director for the University’s Department of Nursing and Patient Services. She also served as president of the 120,000-member Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honor Society, as well as an expert witness in a religious freedom case involving marijuana use by the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Dreher has honors degrees in nursing, anthropology, and philosophy as well as a PhD in anthropology from Columbus University in 1997. Dr. Dreher was handpicked by one of her professors to conduct a major study of marijuana use in Jamaica, her doctoral dissertation from this study was published as a book called “Working Men and Ganja.”

About Dr. Dreher’s Pregnancy Study

While in Jamaica, Dreher conducted a study on marijuana use during pregnancy and the resulting effect on the neonates involved. Dreher’s study originally consisted of 60 women of Afro-Jamaican decent. These women were separated into two groups: marijuana users and non-users. These 60 women were separated equally 30/30 but it became known that 3 mothers drank marijuana tea instead of smoking so they were moved to the user group, making the sample of mothers 33 users and 27 non-users. There were some losses to the sample. Two women had spontaneous abortions in the user’s group and in the non-user’s group there was one still birth and one preterm; this resulted in a sample of 31 users and 25 non-users.

The group of marijuana-using mothers were separated into 3 categories based on frequency and amount of marijuana use: light, moderate, and heavy users.

  • Light users consisted of women who consumed only marijuana tea or smoked infrequently, and averaged smoking less than 10 marijuana cigarettes per week.
  • Moderate users consisted of women who smoked 3 or more days a week and averaged 11-20 marijuana cigarettes per week.
  • Heavy users consisted of women who smoked daily and averaged 21 or more marijuana cigarettes per week. Many of the moderate and heavy users also drank marijuana tea regularly.

After being separated into these categories it divided out to be almost an equal number of women per group (merely by chance); the light had 12 women, moderate had 9 women, and heavy had 10 women out of the total 31 using mothers.

This study then assessed the infants on the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) of both using and non-using mothers. The tests were administered on the first and third days, and one month after birth. Only the babies born in the hospital who remained there for 3 days were included in the sample to be properly analyzed. This changed the sample of 31 using mothers and 25 non-using mothers to 24 exposed neonates and 20 non-exposed neonates. The objective of this project was to identify the neurobehavioral and other effects on children whose mothers consumed marijuana during pregnancy and lactation during the neonatal period.

Due to great disparity in the sample regarding the time and place of birth, the day-one assessments were omitted because of possible differences in recovery. After being assessed at day 3 after birth, the neonates (both exposed and non-exposed) in the sample showed no significant differences. Then, after being reassessed at one month of age, the exposed infants showed significantly higher scores on the Autonomic and Reflex clusters of the NBAS.

Below is a small list of results found in the 30-day study of exposed neonates:

  • Showed better physiological stability and required less examiner facilitation to reach an organized state
  • Were more socially responsive and more autonomically stable
  • Exhibited better quality of alertness
  • Were less irritable
  • Showed signs of better self-regulation
  • Were judged to be more rewarding for caregivers
  • Had better modulation of sleeping and waking
  • Were less prone to stress-related anxiety

There were also no birth defects or behavioral problems linked to the marijuana-exposed children during the first month after birth, or several years later.

Stated in conclusion to these results, from Dr. Dreher’s research published in Pediatrics 1994, “The absence of any differences between exposed on non-exposed groups in the early neonatal period suggest that the better scores of exposed neonates at one month are traceable to the cultural positioning and social and economic characteristics of mothers using marijuana that select for use of marijuana but also promote neonatal development.” After this study was finished, Dreher had a whole new viewpoint on marijuana use prenatally, and she had some powerful statements backing her research during the final hearing of the Iowa Pharmacy Board’s review of medical marijuana.

In a quotation from her testimony during this review (over the phone) Dreher said, “It does not seem to make a difference in either the productivity of the people in Jamaica…it seems to make no difference in terms of exposure during pregnancy… We looked at these children again at age 5, both groups of children, and could find absolutely nothing that linked their development with their exposure during pregnancy.

“I…would strongly support the decriminalization of cannabis, and now that we understand about the endocannabinoid system that this is documented, it’s researched…now that we have knowledge of why cannabis is good medicine, something that Jamaicans have known for years, I think it’s time to seriously revisit this product, to understand and be able to dispense it as medicine legally and to decriminalize the other uses of marijuana.”

Although Dr. Dreher has received political and professional turbulence after presenting her research to the public, she stands strongly by her time spent in Jamaica on her research. There is a lot of misinformation released to the public regarding prenatal cannabis use, especially in the United States. Cannabis use during pregnancy is discouraged by most prenatal clinics, simply due to “lack of research and knowledge on the subject.” With little access to gain authority for proper research on cannabis use and pregnancy or breastfeeding, it leaves curious mothers at a loss, only relying on personal stories of women they know or who share their experience on the internet.

Dr. Dreher’s research could play a very important role in a mother’s decision on cannabis use during pregnancy. There are many women who rely on cannabis as an alternative and all-natural medicine to combat the discomforts of pregnancy, some of which include nausea/vomiting, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or eating, and depression.

To view the publication by Pediatrics of Dr. Dreher’s study on prenatal cannabis use in Jamaica visit, click here.

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