Katie treats her epilepsy with marijuana, a treatment she researched and chose to use during pregnancy rather than risk her baby’s life by taking the strong anti-seizure medication — Keppra and Zarontin — prescribed to her by her doctor. She had good reason to worry, too, since her previous pregnancy (during which she used her prescribed pharmaceuticals) ended in a miscarriage.
To make matters worse Katie’s seizures increased in frequency and duration after she became pregnant this time and her doctor recommended she increase her dosage of these potentially harmful drugs, but could not rule out damage to her baby. “You could fall. You could die” her obstetrician told her. So she chose the course of treatment she knew would be least-harmful for her child. Marijuana.
But because both Katie and her perfectly-healthy newborn son Will, who was born on Christmas day last year, tested positive for marijuana she was arrested and hauled off to the Russell County jail in Phenix City, where she was so distraught that she ended up on suicide watch. Katie had postpartum bleeding and was lactating, yet went days without soap or a blanket, she told her family. It took a week for them to scrape together a $7,500 property bond; by then Katie was close to catatonic.
A shocking number of arrestsA recent investigation by ProPublica was able to identify a total of 479 new and expecting mothers that have been prosecuted under a “chemical endangerment of a child” law passed in 2006, and at least 115 of those prosecutions were related to marijuana. Although the law was created in an effort to go after parents using their homes as meth labs, country drug warriors soon began using it to target women who exposed their embryo or fetus to controlled substances. Adding further speculation as to the true intent of most of these prosecutions is the fact that 80% of the women were charged with Class C felonies, the lowest category that applies when there is only exposure but not physical harm.
A woman can be charged with chemical endangerment from the earliest weeks of pregnancy, even if her baby is born perfectly healthy, even if her goal was to protect her baby from greater harm. The penalties are exceptionally stiff: one to 10 years in prison if her baby suffers no ill effects, 10 to 20 years if her baby shows signs of exposure or harm and 10 to 99 years if her baby dies.
Child endangerment charges in Alabama by drug:
- Marijuana: 24%
- Cocaine: 22%
- Methamphetamine: 18%
- Opiates: 14%
- Amphetamine: 8%
- Benzodiazepines: 6%
- Methadone: 3%
- Other: 5%
Not out of the woods yetSadly for Katie there is still no word on her case, no way of knowing whether or not she is going to have to go to prison for using marijuana while she was pregnant. She was granted custody of Will in March, but since she rejected a plea agreement earlier this year she has been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Katie’s mother-in-law, Debi Word, says it feels like the delay in prosecution is a punishment in and of itself. “Their attitude is, ‘Oh, well, you did this, and this is what you get,” Word said. “People around here are always talking about ‘protecting the unborn child,’ ” she said. “Well, that’s exactly was Katie was trying to do.”
Effects of marijuana use during pregnancy
Pregnancy Effects: Marijuana has been used in other cultures for thousands of years to treat pregnancy-related conditions from morning sickness to labor pains. Studies of mothers in Jamaica and elsewhere have found no link to miscarriage or birth defects.
Birth Effects: While some studies have reported associations between marijuana and low birth weight, particularly in women who use it late in pregnancy, other research has found that the effects are insignificant when factors such as maternal age and tobacco use are taken into account.
Long-term effects: Various studies have found an association between heavy marijuana use in pregnancy and things like lower tests scores, increased depression and impulsive behavior in teenagers. But children in these studies are often poor, with prenatal exposure to multiple substances, making it difficult to link their outcomes to a particular cause.