Cannabis Drug Babies on Rise Australia Pregnancy Danger
CANNABIS smoking during pregnancy is a direr problem in Australia than previously thought, and the effect on babies is severe, a world-first study has found.
The problem is compounded by the fact that 90 per cent of drug-addicted expectant mothers smoke cigarettes, raising further the risk to their babies.
The dramatic findings come from a large-scale University of NSW study, published in the British journal, Addiction, of more than 415,000 births in NSW between 1998 and 2002.
Researchers at the UNSW's National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre examined the effect of opioids, stimulants and cannabis on the developing fetus, finding all had negative effects.
Chief investigator Dr Lucy Burns said one in 150 babies was born to a woman who used drugs during pregnancy.
The figures, from information collected during pregnancy check-ups, were "extremely conservative'' but still represented only a small but disadvantaged group of women.
These users were younger than other mothers, mostly unmarried, had a higher number of previous pregnancies and almost universally lacked private insurance.
Cannabis was used in more than 2100 pregnancies; a result Dr Burns said was both surprising and disturbing.
Health statistics for these babies were not as dire as for those 2000 babies born to women addicted to opioids, like heroin, or the 550 born to users of stimulants, like methamphetamine.
They were more likely to be premature, however, to have a low birth weight and require hospital intensive care than non-drug affected babies.
"We've always regarded cannabis as a bit of a soft drug and we haven't put a lot of emphasis on use in pregnant women because it doesn't have the immediate dramatic effects you see with some of the other drugs," Dr Burns said.
"It's been off the radar, but clearly we should have been paying much more attention."
Compounding the problem was that about 90 per cent of drug-using women were also addicted to tobacco.
"In particular, there's a potent combination when heavy smokers also use cannabis with tobacco," she said.
"That combination of nicotine, tobacco and other chemicals and the cannabis hits babies hard."
Dr Burns said she was mostly disturbed by the small group of severely disadvantaged women who used stimulants, particularly given that use of these drugs was on the rise.
"Our stimulant group of mothers were the ones who were latest to access antenatal services, the most likely to turn up for delivery unbooked and the most likely to smoke heavily," Dr Burns said.
"We don't have specialist services for these women, or a good handle on the best treatments for them, so they're slipping through the net."
She said there was an urgent need to focus on new and innovative ways to assist drug-using women to reduce use of all such substances, including tobacco, in pregnancy.
In particular, there needed to be more early engagement, better continuity of care and increased rates of screening for drug use during pregnancy, she said.