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Collateral Impact: Study finds Colorado marijuana dispensaries are giving bad advice to pregnant women

By: David Olinger Special to The Gazette
May 13, 2018 Updated: May 14, 2018 at 6:39 am
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Caption +
In this Thursday, April 12, 2018, photo, mature cannabis plants are seen in a greenhouse at Glass House Farms in Carpinteria, Calif. Santa Barbara county amassed the largest number of marijuana cultivation licenses in California since broad legalization arrived on Jan. 1, nearly 800, according to state data compiled by The Associated Press. Two-thirds of them come from Carpinteria and Lompoc, a larger agricultural city about an hour's drive to the northwest. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Dispensaries licensed to sell medical marijuana are even more likely than recreational stores to recommend using it during pregnancy, a new Colorado study found.

The study, conducted by doctors at Denver Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, used researchers posing as pregnant women to ask if marijuana would help with morning sickness.

Statewide, 83 percent of medical dispensary employees replied that it was okay. Half of those were in the Colorado Springs area that permits medical but not retail dispensaries.

At retail stores and stores licensed for both recreational and medical use, about 60 percent of employees recommended it.

The callers said they were eight weeks pregnant and feeling really nauseous. Could marijuana help?

The predominant answer: Yes. Statewide, 69 percent of the 400 stores surveyed recommended it. One-third suggested consulting a doctor first without any prompting from the caller.

Those recommendations were made despite widespread warnings from public health officials and doctors that marijuana use could harm a fetus. Colorado marijuana products also carry a warning against using it during pregnancy.

Dr. Torri Metz, the study's lead author, said she was surprised by the results.

"Babies exposed to marijuana in utero are of increased risk of admission to neonatal intensive care units. There are also concerns about possible long-term effects on the developing brain, impacting cognitive function and decreasing academic ability later in childhood," she said.

Kristi Kelly, a spokeswoman for Colorado's Marijuana Industry Group, said her organization has called the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to discuss the study results.

"We have already started that conversation. We're taking it very seriously," she said. "This is a learning moment for us."

She said the group plans "to be more vocal in training our dispensary staff." Among other things, they want employees to ask pregnant customers if they have talked to a doctor.

At the same time, conversation is an important part of the business, she said.

"It's not unusual that people ask for an opinion on a number of things," she said. But "unless you're a doctor, you should be cautious about giving medical advice."

Dr. Larry Wolk, the Health Department's executive director, said the study prompted a call to the state Department of Revenue, which regulates marijuana sales, with "a kind reminder that the stores are not supposed to talk about health effects."

He fears bad health advice could affect what has been a successful campaign to avoid marijuana during pregnancy.

In a 2017 survey, Wolk said, "We did not see any increase. The overwhelming majority of women are still choosing not to use marijuana during pregnancy."

Wolk was at a loss to explain why medical dispensaries were most likely to recommend it to pregnant women.

"I don't think there's any different level of training" among employees, he said.

Of the 400 dispensaries called, 148 were licensed for medical marijuana only. The rest held either retail or retail and medical licenses.

Employees at all but 25 of the medical marijuana dispensaries surveyed recommended cannabis use for morning sickness.

That flies in the face of advice from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which discourages doctors from "prescribing or suggesting the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes during preconception, pregnancy and lactation."

The "pregnant" women used a phone script on each call.

They said they were eight weeks pregnant and feeling really nauseous and asked, "Are there any products that are recommended for morning sickness?"

The responses were all over the map.

"Need a doctor's recommendation first," one employee said.

"Let me call my daughter, she just had a baby, call me back in five minutes," another suggested.

Many others offered opinions that cannabis, in one form or another, would not harm a fetus.

"Edibles would not hurt the child," one employee assured the caller. "They would be going through your digestional (sic) tract."

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