Breastfeeding and cannabis — understudied, still punished

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Seven months into her pregnancy, Carrie Templeton fell down the stairs. The story that unfolds is her account of what happened next.

She and the baby were OK except that Templeton was left with severe back pain. Her doctor prescribed painkillers that Templeton begrudgingly took. Not wanting to expose the baby to opioids unnecessarily while breastfeeding, she quit taking the drug soon after the baby was born. After consulting with her pediatrician, she replaced her pills with cannabis in hopes of caring for herself while minimizing the risk her treatment posed on her breastfeeding baby.

In February, Child Protective Services (CPS) showed up at her doorstep, following up on an anonymous tip with no specific complaint. While in her home, CPS found a glass of wine on the counter, a tapped bowl of cannabis by the back door and a tiny bruise on the then 3-month-old baby’s cheek. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to bring the Templetons into the folds of Boulder County family court.

During the family’s intake, performed in preparation for the upcoming hearing, Templeton underwent drug testing during which she volunteered her marijuana use, under the impression that it was her legally protected right. But after testing positive for THC and in light of her admission, she claims she was treated like an addict — ordered to get clean, attend counseling and be subject to random urine analyses. For the next two weeks, the court collected information about the risks of breastfeeding while using marijuana. The four-page summary report took a clear position against the practice in both its tone and information. Citing data and opinions from federal, state and local agencies, the report suggested that .8 percent of THC passes down from mother to baby through breast milk with mixed and moderate evidence that marijuana use has adverse effects on cognitive ability as the child ages.

Underemphasized in the county report are strong acknowledgements that there is not enough information to draw a conclusion about the safety of a baby ingesting THC in breast milk. With federal prohibition still ongoing, there are significant barriers to medical and scientific research on marijuana based on its classification as a Schedule 1 drug.

Ultimately, on March 15, the court’s decision was in line with the tone of the research the caseworker compiled, and Boulder’s Magistrate Carolyn McLean ordered Templeton to either stop breast feeding or stop using marijuana. At the court’s discretion, the baby is subject to drug testing to ensure that Templeton complies.

“[Magistrate McLean] told me that she wasn’t a fan of marijuana,” Templeton says. “And that she wouldn’t allow me to breastfeed my baby.”

Templeton resents the implication that she is putting her baby at risk. She believed she acted in the best interest of herself and her child by consulting her pediatrician and performing her own research on the available studies.

There are not many studies about the effects of breastfeeding while consuming marijuana — just three — says Helen Thomson, executive director of Elephant Circle, a consumer advocacy and reproductive justice organization. She asserts that none of them are scientifically robust, with insufficient sample numbers, no peer review and poor or non-existent controls. Despite the insufficient methodology behind the studies, they are frequently cited and, whether through an appeal to popular culture or sheer repetition, have worked their way into popular belief and legal precedent.

And so we arrive at an all-too-familiar moment in this post-prohibition era — a time without precedent and with insufficient and inconclusive evidence to guide us forward. But we should not underestimate our propensity for jumping to conclusions — the admission that more research is needed on this issue is a crucial concession to the moralism that defined the war on drugs.

Even the state legislature recognizes the need to not make judgements prematurely, as evidenced by their struggle to take a position about maternal cannabis consumption. Last year, Colorado lawmakers rejected a ban on selling marijuana to pregnant women and another measure to post warning signs in pot shops, citing the lack of concrete evidence to justify such measures.

In lieu of the family court’s order, Thompson is working with Templeton to protect her rights. Thompson says she is concerned by the punitive attitudes expressed in this case and worries that cases like this wrongly punish women and their families.

“This is not an endorsement that cannabis use by pregnant or nursing mothers is safe,” Thompson says. “Rather, it is an assertion of a woman’s legal right to use marijuana and a recognition of her autonomy as both a mother and a woman.”

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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