NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

October 15, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

For decades now, we’ve seen claims about children’s risk of abuse/harm/abduction/etc. ballyhooed by the press and popular culture.  During that time, many people understandably formed the impression that children were in constant danger, that a killer lurked behind every tree, in every family, school, public park, and on and on.

Submerged deep beneath the overblown verbiage was the fact that children have literally never been safer.  Countless datasets show children to be healthier and safer from abuse and crime than at any time in our history.  The hysteria about child sexual abuse in pre-school environments ran its course, but not before many adults had their lives destroyed by, among other things, district attorneys keen to make a name for themselves at the expense of justice, decency and common sense.

As outrageous as the McMartin Pre-School, Fells Acres Day Care cases and others were, as many lives as they ruined, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the entire charade was the astonishing gullibility of adults.  Somehow, when barely verbal children had been convinced by adults to tell adults that they had been raped by adults living in trees wielding butcher knives or, on occasion in space ships, adults managed to believe them.  It wasn’t the kids who did the damage, it was the supposedly responsible adults who put the words in their mouths and then claimed they reflected the truth.

One result of about three decades of disinformation about children’s safety and well-being has been the dramatic increase in the power of the state in the guise of children’s protective agencies.

That brings us to a current mini-event (Colorado Springs Gazette, 10/7/18).

When one Colorado hospital reported 50 percent of babies born in a single month had marijuana in their systems, a public health hysteria took root, with the image of a statewide epidemic of high newborns embellished in each retelling.

Half of newborns!  Mothers addicting their babies to pot!  Call CPS and the police!

The problem is, few people who use the statistic put it into context.

Actually, it’s not just the context that’s missing, it’s the facts.

St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo reported in July 2016, when it still had a labor and delivery unit, that “nearly half of the newborns born in March 2016 at St. Mary-Corwin who were drug tested due to suspected pre-natal exposure tested positive for marijuana.”

Ah, comes the dawn.  Those magic words “who were tested” got left out of the preferred narrative that there is an “epidemic” of pot babies.  Inquiring minds, like those of the writer of the quite admirable Gazette article, wanted to know what percentage of babies were tested.

[O]f the 52 babies born at St. Mary’s that month, only 11 were drug tested, and of those 11, five were positive for THC.

Oh.  So in fact five out of 52 babies born at St. Mary’s had pot in their systems.  That’s 9.6%, not 50%.  Numbers sure can be tricky.

But as is so often the case, facts often stand in the way of a good narrative, and sure enough, District Attorney Dan May was happy to try to fan the flames of the hysteria.

 “In 2016, they asked all the hospitals, are you seeing more babies born with marijuana? Every hospital in the state of Colorado reported that it had an increase … The hospital down in Pueblo reported 48 percent of the babies were born with marijuana in their system at birth. That’s 50 percent of babies in Pueblo.”

So, what about May’s claim that there’s an upward trend in newborns with THC in their system?  A spokesperson for St. Mary’s Hospital claimed the same thing.  But, as the article makes clear, there’s simply no support for that proposition.

[The hospital has] no data to back up whether the percentage is higher or lower than other years.


The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the state’s public health record keeper, said it does not “receive or track data” on THC-positive infants across the state because there is no consistency between the hospitals about who gets tested. 

The Gazette did what’s increasingly rare among journalistic publications.  It committed journalism.  It didn’t stop with St. Mary’s Hospital, but got data from three others and, lo and behold, they’re much like those of St. Mary’s.

In the absence of statewide data, The Gazette reached out to the three other hospitals that deliver babies in El Paso and Pueblo counties to see whether their data reflected an alarming trend of THC-positive babies, but their statistics are similar — less than half of the babies born are tested, and those that are positive for marijuana account for 5 percent or less of the newborn population.

Meanwhile, there’s at least some anecdotal information that state child welfare authorities have seized on the false reports to increase interventions into families.

Colorado law requires that parents whose babies test positive for the drug be reported to social services for investigation of child abuse. Most of the time those reports are quickly ruled unfounded, but [NORML’s Ashley]Weber said more parents this year are calling frantic that their county’s social services agency is threatening to remove their children from the home because they tested positive for marijuana at birth. She worries “misleading information” might be driving the trend.

It’s impossible to know the extent of that perceived phenomenon, since the Colorado Department of Human Services doesn’t keep records on children taken from parents specifically based on pot exposure.

Is marijuana dangerous to newborns, in either the short or the long term?  Apparently, there’s too little information on the subject to draw sound conclusions.

The Colorado health department says on its website that using marijuana during pregnancy or while breastfeeding “may make it hard for your child to pay attention and learn, especially as your child grows older. This would make it harder for your child to do well in school.”…
Very little is known about the effects of marijuana exposure on infants. Most research depends on anecdotal information provided by parents after the fact. But [Dr. Sheryl] Ryan says “based on the limited data that does exist, as pediatricians, we believe there is cause to be concerned about how the drug will impact the long-term development of children.”

Until the long and short-term medical facts are established, I would recommend abstention from marijuana use during pregnancy.  There may be no ill effects from using it, but why take the chance?  My un-educated guess is that pot could impair the development of the brain of a fetus or newborn and is therefore better left alone.

But whatever the case turns out to be, there is plainly no grounds for the type of hysteria certain law enforcement and children’s welfare personnel seem to prefer.  Let’s not make legal pot grounds for another witch hunt.

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