It is odious because it’s so clearly profiling; racial profiling and a subtler economic and class based form of criminal profiling resulting in newborn babies and their families caught in the crossfire of the United States’ unceasing, unrelenting, everlasting Drug War.
Nurses at a North Carolina Hospital became suspicious when an unusually large number of discretionary drug tests performed on newborn babies tested positive for THC. These false positive tests did not trigger further, more sensitive, drug tests but, rather, a report to Child Protective Services and Law Enforcement, the arrest of the new mother, the trauma and danger to bonding of having a newborn infant separated from his or her family, the expense and intrusion of court proceedings including the cost of hiring an attorney and of subsequent drug tests, the rank governmental intrusion into a person’s family life, in short, it is a major and extremely drastic chain of events.
The Nurses reported their concerns which were repeated until researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became involved. After testing numerous substances to which newborn babies are commonly exposed, they found that incredibly tiny amounts, less than 0.1 milliliters, of trace exposure to certain common baby products, namely Johnson & Johnson Bedtime Bath, Johnson & Johnson Head-to-Toe Baby Wash, Aveeno Baby Soothing Relief Creamy Wash, Aveeno Baby Wash & Shampoo and CVS Night-Time Baby Bath, containing a variety of chemicals including cocamidopropyl betaine and polyquarternium-11, triggered the false positive for THC.
Anywhere from ten to forty percent of newborns were tested for illegal drugs, including marijuana. Babies were targeted because of “risk factors” that included “insufficient” prenatal care which would target women who had hoped to have home births and poor and working class women with no insurance and transportation issues that limited their access to prenatal care. The only other "risk factor" referenced was "a history of drug abuse," while official policy on marijuana holds any amount of use to be abuse.
Dr. Carl Seashore, co-author of the study that identified the causes of this particular set of false positive results notes the need, “to correctly identify situations that need additional intervention or social service actions for the protection of the baby,” but is prenatal exposure to marijuana really an indication that the baby needs protection?
The traditional medical establishment contends that studies have shown that marijuana use during pregnancy, The University of California San Francisco website states that the use of marijuana while pregnant, “can affect fetal and infant development and may cause miscarriage,” although they admit, “Although the effects of marijuana use on an unborn baby are still unknown,” they go on to cite “studies” that link marijuana use to, “premature births, small birth size, difficult or long labor and an increase in newborn jitteriness.” It is stated, without any proof that, “Marijuana is never safe during pregnancy and it can harm the baby at any stage. In addition, marijuana can have long term effects on infants and children, such as paying attention or learning to read.”
The studies cited by UC-San Francisco were animal studies where exceedingly large doses of THC were administered to rodents and even then studies showed effects only when THC was administered at particular points in the pregnancy and only in certain subspecies of the rodents used. Similar research done with chimpanzees showed no harmful effects from taking extremely high doses of THC during pregnancy.
More persuasive is research done with human subjects. Ethnographer Dr. Melanie Dreher studied pregnant women in Jamaica throughout their pregnancies and for a year after they gave birth. The only difference Dr. Dreher found between women who smoked marijuana while pregnant and those that didn’t was that the children of marijuana smokers, “socialized and made eye contact more quickly and those children were easier to engage.”
The largest study to date, involving twelve thousand women, found no differences in outcome for children whose mothers used marijuana while pregnant and those that did not as has the Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Project which since 1978 has used tests to track children whose mother used marijuana during pregnancy although the chief researcher on the project, psychologist Dr. Peter Fried still believes such harmful effects must exist and that he and his fellow scientists just need “more sensitive measures” to find them.
Dr. John Spangler, Associate Professor of Community Medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina insisted that, “we must screen babies’ urine to protect them from harmful environments,” yet babies are not screened for exposure to ethyl alcohol despite the known, concrete risks heavy alcohol use poses to developing fetuses. Despite medical recommendations that, like marijuana, no amount of alcohol consumption is safe during pregnancy, a woman can drink all day, every day up until the point of delivery with some delivery centers allowing a bottle of celebratory wine both during and after labor and no one will call the police or CPS.
In reality, moderate drinking during pregnancy, like moderate marijuana use, is not dangerous during pregnancy, and, in fact, many mid-wives will recommend a glass of wine or even an occasional joint, especially if the expectant mother is suffering from extreme nausea. In states where medical marijuana has been legalized pregnant women on prescription anti-anxiety medications known to harm developing fetuses have been prescribed marijuana instead, setting the stage for a another potential point of showdown between women, local authorities, and hospitals beholden to Federal funding.
Articles reporting this story note that drug testing of newborns is “routine” but also states that they do not routinely test women unless there are suspicions of drug use. This is true of hospitals across the country. Although the article makes no mention of race, studies have shown that African American women are ten times more likely to be reported to CPS for prenatal drug use than other women. The War on Drugs, primarily a War on Marijuana, was been responsible for a drastic erosion in our 4th Amendment rights and the insertion of the marijuana hysteric Police State more deeply into ever increasing areas of our personal lives from birth to death. Dr. Spangler may believe that this episode exposes the need for, "more discriminating tests," when what is called for is a saner, less discriminating policy regarding marijuana prohibition.
The disproportionate focus of the War on Drugs on marijuana users continues unabated with the effects of enforcement falling heavily on minorities and lower income individuals. President Obama has been hinting that if elected to a second term he will turn his laser-like focus on reforming the War on Drugs. If true, it will mark a radical turn from his first term in office where the Justice Department has taken a hard line against States who have legalized medical marijuana, leading raids on marijuana dispensaries, seizing the property of landlords under Federal drug law statutes, and prosecuting owners of dispensaries and licensed growers in Federal court when local prosecutors refuse to cooperate; and where his head of the DEA, Michele Leonhardt, a reappointment from George W. Bush’s tenure as President, can sit in front of Congress and refuse to say that marijuana is less harmful that crack cocaine or heroin, repeating over and over, “All illegal drugs are bad,” like some episode of South Park gone terribly, wrong, M’Kay, and a statement which, from his own personal experience and the experiences of his peer group, he must know, in his hear-of-hearts, simply isn’t true.
Meanwhile, women may want to consider trained midwives and home births in protest of this ill-conceived policy.