Arizona Lawmakers Want to Force Medical-Pot Stores to Warn Pregnant Women About Weed Danger

Arizona lawmakers have backed off a controversial plan to prohibit pregnant women from consuming medical marijuana — instead they want dispensaries to warn them of alleged pot risks.

No urgent need for the bill exists, arguably, because marijuana use during pregnancy isn't considered a significant risk for birth defects.

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The original proposal, House Bill 2061, was replaced this week with a strike-all amendment that forms the basis for a new bill.  Under this new version, pregnant women wouldn't be banned from using marijuana if they are qualified patients under Arizona law — a move that undoubtedly would have run afoul of the Arizona's Voter Protection Act, a 1998 law that prevents legislators from making non-beneficial changes to laws approved directly by voters.

Now, the bill states that each dispensary would be made to display a sign in a noticeable spot that "warns pregnant women about the dangers to fetuses caused by smoking or ingesting marijuana while pregnant and the risk of being reported to the Department of Child Safety during pregnancy or at the birth of the child."

Dispensaries would pay all the costs for the new signage.

Sponsors of the bill include state representative Paul Boyer (R-Glendale) and Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa). The bill suggests a desire by Republican politicians who don't like marijuana decriminalization to make their own mark on Arizona's medical-cannabis law, which voters passed in 2010.

No urgent need for the bill exists, because marijuana use during pregnancy isn't considered a significant risk for birth defects.

Boyer and Townsend couldn't be reached for comment.

In a July 2015 report, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said pregnant women shouldn't use marijuana because of the potential for problems, pointing out that some studies — which are contradicted by other studies — suggest lower birth weights or reduced vision-related motor skills in children exposed to marijuana in utero.

The organization's experts, however, didn't see any general correlation between marijuana use and catastrophic medical problems, including birth defects, in exposed children. 

"[But] because the effects of marijuana use may be as serious as those of cigarette smoking or alcohol consumption, marijuana also should be avoided during pregnancy," according to the ACOG statement.

However, in other literature, the ACOG — quoting from a 1998 report — mentions that no substance (including marijuana, cocaine, or heroin) is as bad for fetal development as alcohol.

All that said, advocates of medical marijuana don't appear prepared to fight the sign bill.

Indeed, J.P. Holyoak, principal owner of Arizona Natural Selections dispensary in Phoenix, considers the legislative move a possible "trap." Conservative legislators would like to see marijuana advocates come to a hearing planned this afternoon for the bill,  Holyoak says, and argue against the proposal.

"I'm not going to do it," he says. "Who in their right mind is going to argue that pregnant women
should smoke marijuana?"

Still, he notes that doctors sometimes prescribe Oxycontin or other potent painkillers to pregnant women and that marijuana is a safer way to treat pain. But from a personal point of view and as a parent,  he believes "pregnant women shouldn't use any type of drugs."

The Voter Protection Act seems to have done most of the arguing for the pro-cannabis side. Holyoak says a legislative staffer who analyzed the original ban bill concluded that it probably didn't further the purpose of the 2010 medical-marijuana law —  a condition required by the VPA for changes —  because it excluded patients who were otherwise qualified under the law.

The signage requirement still would need approval by a super-majority of three-fourths of lawmakers under the VPA, since it makes changes to a voter-approved law.

(Not surprisingly, Arizona lawmakers are making another attempt this year to rid the state of that bothersome VPA.)

It's unclear whether mothers who use medical marijuana could be hassled by the DCS.

A policy manual for DCS employees notes that use or possession of marijuana is legal under the 2010 law. Caseworkers who encounter parents with medical-marijuana cards determine whether the use of marijuana — or the parent's underlying medical condition — "impairs parental functioning" or causes a child to be "intentionally or negligently exposed to medical marijuana; thus placing the child in present or impending danger or at unreasonable risk of harm."

A qualified patient who doesn't drive kids while impaired and keeps marijuana inaccessible and out of sight to children shouldn't be in jeopardy, theoretically.

When a child is born with signs of exposure to marijuana, DCS workers should determine if "this exposure was not the result of a medical treatment administered to the mother or the newborn infant by a health professional."

In the case of medical marijuana, which has to be approved by a doctor, a baby born with marijuana metabolites in his or her bloodstream might not trigger automatic reporting that would involve the DCS. 

A DCS spokesman did not return a message from seeking clarification of the agency's rules and practices regarding pregnant women and medical marijuana.

Whatever the DCS does, members of the obstetricians and gynecologists' group worry that government intervention in such cases may be an additional problem.

"It is important to emphasize that the purpose of screening is to allow treatment of the woman’s substance use, not to punish or prosecute her," the ACOG site states. "Seeking obstetric–gynecologic care should not expose a woman to criminal or civil penalties for marijuana use, such as incarceration, involuntary commitment, loss of custody of her children, or loss of housing... Drug-enforcement policies that deter women from seeking prenatal care are contrary to the welfare of the mother and fetus."

In other words, maybe dispensary signs ought to warn pregnant women against the DCS and overzealous prosecutors.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

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