Birth Defects in Colorado Linked to Medical, Recreational Marijuana
A study published in the medical journal Clinical Pediatrics has strongly demonstrated a link between marijuana use in early pregnancy and serious birth defects in Colorado. In this post, the medical marijuana injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm summarizes the findings of this study and discusses its possible legal implications.
The State of Colorado decriminalized possession and use of cannabis (marijuana) for medical purposes in 2001 and approved the sale of cannabis for recreational (non-medical) use in 2014, essentially legalizing cannabis use and possession by adults. The above-mentioned study used a state-maintained database (Colorado Responds to Children with Special Needs) that records every birth complicated by a major birth defect in the state. The authors studied the number of major birth defects reported in the years beginning in 2000 and ending in 2014.
In summary, the study found that:
During the study period, the use of tobacco, alcohol, cocaine and opiate pain relievers by expectant mothers in Colorado decreased but cannabis use by expectant mothers increased.
Although the birth rate in Colorado increased by 3.3% during the study period, the number of major birth defects increased by 22% during the same period.
The most frequently-reported birth defects were:
Atrial Septal Defect (ASD): A defect (“hole”) in the muscular wall separating the two upper chambers of the heart. ASDs usually require surgical closure to prevent serious heart and lung problems from developing later in childhood or early adolescence.
Spina bifida: A defect caused by the spine incompletely covering the lower portion of the spinal cord. Except in the mildest cases, children with spina bifida will require a lifetime of special medical care.
Microcephaly: Literally, “small head”, a condition where the infant’s head is smaller than normal. This condition is frequently associated with intellectual disability and seizure disorders.
Down Syndrome: Also known as Trisomy 21, this disorder can involve the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems and invariably causes some degree of intellectual disability.
Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD): A defect in the muscular wall separating the lower chambers of the heart. Most VSDs will eventually require surgical closure to prevent irreversible heart and lung damage.
Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA): An abnormal connection between the infant’s aorta and pulmonary artery that can lead to lung damage and heart failure if left untreated.
After allowing for other variables such as maternal age and co-existing diseases (e.g. diabetes or other substance abuse), the authors concluded that maternal marijuana use was responsible for the observed increase in the number of birth defects in Colorado and that ease of availability of marijuana under the state’s medical cannabis and recreational use laws was a significant factor affecting maternal marijuana use.
Although the above study was based on data from Colorado, there is reason to suspect that the number of mothers giving birth to children with serious birth defects in states that have decriminalized cannabis products for medical or recreational use has also increased. In fact, the same authors had previously published a study that identified the same pattern of birth defects nationwide in Canada, which legalized medical and recreational cannabis use in 2018.
Under Colorado law, a woman who gave birth to a child with a birth defect after purchasing and using cannabis products from a state-licensed dispensary would have two years from the date of the child’s birth to file a lawsuit against the dispensary and any other parties involved in the production and distribution of the cannabis product. However, if the child’s mother did not learn of the association of cannabis with birth defects until later, the law considers the statute of limitations to begin to “run” on the day she first learned on that association. She would then have two years from the date of discovery in which to file a lawsuit.
At The Doan Law Firm, our medical marijuana lawyer and staff will continue to monitor the professional medical literature for future studies regarding this serious topic and will provide updates as they become available.