Researchers find cannabis use in pregnancy linked to greater risk of autism

OTTAWA — A new study links cannabis use in pregnancy to a greater risk of autism.

Researchers including experts from the Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa reviewed data from every birth in Ontario between 2007 and 2012, before recreational cannabis was legalized.

They found 1.4 per cent of 18-month-olds were diagnosed with autism but that rate was higher among children exposed to cannabis in the womb, at 2.2 per cent.

Of roughly 500,000 women in the study, 3,000 reported cannabis use during pregnancy. The analysis focused on 2,200 women who said they only used cannabis during pregnancy, and no other substances.

Researchers don't know how much cannabis was used, how often, at what stage of their pregnancy, or how it was consumed. They also caution the findings only show association — not cause and effect.

The findings were published today in the medical journal Nature Medicine.

Even though recreational cannabis is now legal and more socially acceptable, study co-author Dr. Darine El-Chaar says that doesn't mean it's safe for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

El-Chaar says cannabis use seems to be more prevalent, with her patients much more open about telling her it helps ease their morning sickness or pain.

"Our answer is still that we don't have correct, properly made studies that are designed to look at this question," says El-Chaar, a maternal-fetal medicine physician and clinician investigator at the Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

Researchers had previously found that cannabis use in pregnancy was linked to an increased risk of preterm birth. That study also found pregnant women who used cannabis often used other substances including tobacco, alcohol and opioids.

Funding came from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

— By Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2020.

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