The last few years have seen an increase in states working to decriminalize recreational marijuana use by adults. Apparently, the U.S. Surgeon General believes that only illegal status was preventing pregnant people from puffing their nine months away, because this year he issued a strong warning against marijuana use during pregnancy.
This cartoon addresses criminalization of marijuana use rather than a generalized warning, but the fact is that laws that criminalize drug use during pregnancy and issue special penalties for it already exist and women are being charged under them. Furthermore, even in decriminalized states, mothers still face consequences for marijuana by way of the child welfare system; sanctions can include one that many mothers would rate even worse than the loss of their liberty: the loss of their child. These repercussions seem vastly disproportionate to the drug-using behavior, considering the following facts:
- The effects of marijuana use during pregnancy are often overstated in the absence of concrete data.
- The effects of marijuana use during pregnancy are often confounded with other substance use – including alcohol and tobacco, which are far more dangerous to the baby than any illicit drug.
- The effects of marijuana use during pregnancy are often confounded with socio-economic status and with disparate effects by race, including uneven enforcement, uneven consequences, and uneven expectation of privacy. Indeed, the effects of intervention itself in the form of child welfare agencies cannot be classified as benign; certainly, separating babies from their mothers in the first hours of life isn’t good for either party.
Sanctions, whether threatened or real, scare pregnant people away from prenatal care. When so many things in our lives are bad for babies (job loss, environmental pollution, violence against women), this fixation with a substance whose harm hasn’t even been fully established looks like just another way to criminalize pregnancy. In addition, when marijuana use is legal, punishing users might serve as the bridge to criminalizing tobacco and alcohol use. Or consumption of runny cheese! Or hot tub use. … Or living in a neighborhood where the water has been turned off, homes have been foreclosed upon, and the factory next door belches a queasy-making smoke that the municipality assures residents is Perfectly Safe.
If we want pregnancy to result in healthy babies and healthy mothers, perhaps we might concentrate on known dangers and support parents in ways that don’t involve a) a jail cell, or b) the threat of separation on the single most important day in a brand-new person’s life.
- Khiara M. Bridges, The Poverty of Privacy Rights (Stanford, California: Stanford Law Books, 2017).
- E. J. Dickson, “How the Surgeon General’s Weed Warning Could Hurt Pregnant Women and Mothers,” Rolling Stone (blog), August 29, 2019.
All images are shared under a Creative Commons license, unless otherwise noted. Where required by license, changes to the image are noted.
- Frame 1: “Reefer Madness” poster (“drug-crazed abandon!”) is from Wikimedia Commons. The image is in the public domain.
- Frame 2: Policymaker and scientist/doctor are by Mohamed Mahmoud. RJ Truthteller is borrowed from another cartoon that states the image source.
- Frame 4: Pregnant woman is by Thiago Borges. Health Department is by Michael Rivera; the image was cropped.
- Frame 5: The photo is by Patricia Deal, and is in the public domain. Because this photo portrays a real person, we wish to emphasize that the pregnant woman pictured did not speak the words we put in her mouth. In no way do we wish to suggest that the circumstances suggested by those words apply to her.