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Lindsay Ridgell, an Arizona mother who gave birth in 2019, has been charged with child neglect and placed on Arizona’s child abuse central registry after using Marijuana while pregnant. This case is likely to set a significant precedent regarding legal consequences for the use of Marijuana during pregnancy.
Ridgell’s newborn, Silas, tested positive for Marijuana. The drug screen was ordered after the infant exhibited troubling symptoms. A medical professional observed that Silas was jittery, and the infant was also having trouble breathing in addition to suffering from both strep throat and bleeding in the brain.
Arizona’s Department of Child Safety (DCS), where Ridgell worked at the time of her baby’s birth, was alerted to the positive drug screen by hospital staff. Ridgell has since lost her job.
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Since she had been taking Marijuana medically, which has been legal in the state of Arizona for over a decade, Ridgell chose to appeal the DCS’s decision. After raising enough money to afford filing fees on GoFundMe, that’s exactly what Ridgell did; an administrative law judge then agreed with Ridgell, deeming the DCS’s evidence “double hearsay” and ordering Ridgell’s removal from the child abuse registry.
However, despite the fact that Ridgell’s use of Marijuana during pregnancy was, as the judge said, “under her doctor’s care and according to their instructions,” the DCS refused to reverse its earlier decision and kept Ridgell on the registry.
Now Ridgell, who suffered from a rare condition called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) that caused nausea and vomiting during her pregnancy, is appealing once again. She and her attorney, Julie Gunnigle, attended oral arguments at the Arizona Court of Appeals on September 15.
Gunnigle has said of her client, “[she] was the only one who presented any science,” and that “[Cannabis] is a choice to treat HG during pregnancy, and the risks to the fetus are not extreme … it’s a decision that she was completely entitled to make.”
If the Arizona Court of Appeals rules against Ridgell, she will remain on Arizona’s child abuse registry for the next 25 years.
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Baby Silas presented with respiratory difficulty, brain bleeding, strep throat, and jitteriness after his birth. But was Marijuana use during pregnancy responsible for these symptoms, and what exactly is the impact of maternal use of Marijuana on a developing fetus?
One analysis of data on the subject, published in the Obstetrics & Gynecology medical journal, found that “[Marijuana] use during pregnancy is not an independent risk factor for adverse neonatal outcomes,” clarifying that adverse outcomes such as Silas’s that do correlate with maternal Marijuana use are likely due to either co-occurring use of tobacco or unspecified “confounding factors.”
Another study, published in the West Indian Medical Journal, sought to uncover whether there were more long-term effects on children whose mothers used Marijuana while pregnant. This study, which analyzed almost 5 dozen children from birth up until the age of 5, found that there were “no significant differences in developmental testing outcomes between children of Marijuana-using and non-using mothers.”
In Silas’s case specifically, it’s not necessarily clear how maternal Marijuana use during pregnancy could have caused strep throat. Strep throat is caused by the Streptococcus Pyogenes bacterium, not Marijuana, and the condition is not uncommon in newborns. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Strep throat can occur at any age, even during infancy.”
Meanwhile, brain bleeding — while it sounds serious and certainly can be — is an incredibly common condition in newborns. One study, conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that over a quarter of babies born vaginally are affected by the condition. Respiratory distress is also prevalent among newborns; a study published in the Vaccine journal called it “one of the most common problems [infants] encounter,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that roughly 1 in 10 newborns require help breathing at birth.
Finally, jitteriness during crying is normal in children per the Seattle Children’s Hospital; it typically stops on its own after the baby is a few months old. None of Silas’s symptoms, therefore, may have had anything to do with his mother’s Marijuana use.
None of this is to say that Marijuana use during pregnancy is risk-free; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), use of Marijuana while pregnant may lead to a baby with a low birth weight. Additionally, breathing in any kind of smoke can be harmful to a mother and a developing fetus. Mothers should also be cautious about using Marijuana during breastfeeding, as more research needs to be done on its effects.
That apparent health issues with newborns may be attributable to many causes other than Marijuana use isn’t the only concern of those who criticize the drug testing of new and soon-to-be mothers. Dr. Jamila Perritt, OB/GYN and president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health, is worried that Americans of color and low-income Americans are likely to be disproportionately punished by drug testing during pregnancy and shortly thereafter.
The case of one Shakira Kennedy, a Black woman who used Marijuana to treat nausea during her pregnancy, may be an example of this. Kennedy testified to the New York State Assembly that “When my twins were born, the hospital drug-tested me without telling me.” Kennedy went on to say that “They found [Marijuana] in my system but not in my children,” but that the hospital notified New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services anyway; apparently just the fact that Kennedy had used Marijuana was enough.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that hospitals cannot drug test pregnant women without their consent or a valid warrant. Testing mothers for drugs shortly after they give birth is another story, however; Ridgell’s case could set a precedent that affects mothers everywhere.
Will Henken earned a B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Central Florida. He has had his work published in the Orlando Sentinel, and has previous experience crafting copy for political action committees and advocacy groups dedicated to social justice. Addiction and mental health are personal subjects for him, and his greatest hope is that he can give a helping hand to those seeking healthy and lasting recovery.