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The use of psychoactive substances during pregnancy has been on the rise for years, spurred on by the opioid epidemic and the tide of marijuana legalization across the country. Many people mistakenly assume that cannabis products are safe to use during pregnancy to help manage morning sickness, vomiting, sleep issues and more. As a result, cannabis is now second only to alcohol as the most used psychoactive substance during pregnancy.

But a growing body of research is documenting the harms that cannabis and other substances – including opioids and stimulants – have on the developing fetus. As with alcohol, these substances are linked to stillbirth, preterm birth, low birth weight, and delays in learning and language development, among other adverse outcomes.

Epidemiologist Amna Umer from West Virginia University has been studying the changing landscape of substance use during pregnancy. Prenatal substance exposure is a growing problem across the U.S., she notes, but certain areas are seeing staggering rates. In Umer’s home state of West Virginia, she and her team found in a recent study that prenatal substance use was nearly 50% higher than the national rate, and about 1 in 8 infants born there had been exposed to substances in the womb.

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Amanda Mascarelli

Senior Health and Medicine Editor

Substance use during pregnancy can lead to a broad array of harmful effects. Liudmila Chernetska/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Hundreds of thousands of US infants every year pay the consequences of prenatal exposure to drugs, a growing crisis particularly in rural America

Amna Umer, West Virginia University

Many people wrongly assume that cannabis use during pregnancy is safe. Research is increasingly documenting a host of serious health harms from prenatal exposure to cannabis and other substances.

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