Association of Depression, Anxiety, and Trauma With Cannabis Use During Pregnancy, Kelly C. Young-Wolff et al., 2020

Association of Depression, Anxiety, and Trauma With Cannabis Use During Pregnancy

Kelly C. Young-Wolff, PhD, MPH; Varada Sarovar, PhD; Lue-Yen Tucker, BA; Nancy C. Goler, MD; Stacey E. Alexeeff, PhD; Kathryn K. Ridout,MD, PhD; Lyndsay A. Avalos, PhD

JAMA Network Open, 2020, 3, (2), e1921333.

doi : 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.21333



Prenatal cannabis use is increasing,1,2 and several qualitative studies3,4 indicate that pregnantwomen self-report using cannabis to manage stress and mood. However, few epidemiological studies have examined whether pregnant women with mental health disorders and trauma are at increased risk of using cannabis during pregnancy. Data from the Kaiser Permanente Northern California (KPNC) large integrated health care system, which provides universal screening for prenatal cannabis use by selfreport and urine toxicology testing, were used in this cross-sectional study to examine the association of depression, anxiety, and trauma diagnoses and symptoms with prenatal cannabis use.


Pregnant women with live births at KPNC who completed a self-reported questionnaire on prenatal substance use and a urine toxicology test at their first prenatal visit (at approximately 8 weeks’ gestation) during standard prenatal care from 2012 to 2017 were included. Confirmatory tests were performed for positive toxicology tests. Of 219 071 pregnancies, 1042 (0.5%) without the date of the last menstrual period, 21 115 (9.6%) without a toxicology test, and 892 (0.4%) with no answer to the question about self-reported cannabis use were excluded.

The KPNC institutional review board approved this study and waived the need for informed consent. This study follows the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) reporting guideline.

Depressive and anxiety disorders and trauma diagnoses during pregnancy were ascertained from the electronic health record. International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification and International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision, Clinical Modification diagnosis codes used to identify depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma diagnoses during pregnancy (ie, from last menstrual period through date of live birth) are provided in the eAppendix in the Supplement. Self-reported depression symptoms (based on the Patient Health Questionnaire–95; score <5, none; score 5-9, mild depression; score 10-14, moderate depression; score15, moderately severe to severe depression) and intimate partner violence were assessed via universal screening at the first prenatal visit. The 3 self-reported questions used to identify intimate partner violence at the first prenatal visit are shown in the eAppendix in the Supplement.

We compared demographic and mental health characteristics of pregnant women with and without any prenatal cannabis use (by self-report and/or a positive toxicology test). P values were calculated using separate generalized estimating equation models to account for some women having more than 1 pregnancy during the study period. Next, the adjusted odds ratios (aORs) and 95%CIs of any prenatal cannabis use by mental health diagnoses or symptoms were estimated using generalized estimating equation models to account forwomen with multiple pregnancies during the study, adjusting for year, median neighborhood annual household income, age, and self-reported race/ethnicity. Two-sided P < .05 was considered statistically significant. Data analysis was performed using SAS statistical software version 9.4 (SAS Institute) from June 2019 to October 2019.


Of the 196022 pregnancies, 69 925 (35.7%)were white, 29 486 (15.0%)were aged less than 25 years (mean [SD] age, 30.3 [5.4] years), and the median (interquartile range) neighborhood annual household incomewas $70859 ($51 893-$93036); 11 681 pregnancies (6.0%) screened positive for prenatal cannabis (Table). The prevalence of mental health conditions ranged from 1.9%(intimate partner violence) to 11.0%(depression symptoms of at least moderate severity).Women who used cannabis, compared with those who did not use cannabis,were younger (age <25 years, 4904 [42.0%] vs 24 582 [13.3%]), had lower annual household incomes (income <$51 893, 4697 [40.3%] vs 44 251 [24.0%]), were more likely to be African American (2296 [19.7%] vs 8185 [4.4%]) or Hispanic (3652 [31.3%] vs 51 052 [27.7%]), andwere less likely to be Asian (333 [2.9%] vs 34001 [18.4%]) (Table).Women who used cannabiswere also more likely than those who did not use cannabis to have an anxiety disorder (969 [8.3%] vs 8728 [4.7%]), depressive disorder (1235 [10.6%] vs 7892 [4.3%]), anxiety disorder and depressive disorder (975 [8.4%] vs 5682 [3.1%]), depression symptoms (mild, 3419 [32.2%] vs 41 279 [24.5%]; moderate, 1415 [13.3%] vs 11 744 [7.0%]; and moderately severe to severe, 875 [8.3%] vs 5608 [3.3%]), trauma diagnosis (966 [8.3%] vs 3719 [2.0%]), and self-reported intimate partner violence (473 [4.4%] vs 3016 [1.8%]) (Table).

Compared with women without depressive or anxiety disorders, those with anxiety disorders (aOR, 1.90; 95%CI, 1.76-2.04), depressive disorders (aOR, 2.25; 95%CI, 2.11-2.41), or both (aOR, 2.65; 95%CI, 2.46-2.86) had greater odds of cannabis use (Figure). Similarly, compared with women without depression symptoms, those with mild (aOR, 1.60; 95%CI, 1.53-1.67), moderate (aOR, 2.09; 95%CI, 1.96-2.23), and moderately severe to severe symptoms (aOR, 2.55; 95%CI, 2.35-2.77) had increased odds of cannabis use.Women with (vs without) a trauma diagnosis (aOR, 2.82; 95%CI, 2.59-3.06) and with (vs without) self-reported intimate partner violence (aOR, 1.94; 95%CI, 1.74-2.15) also had greater odds of cannabis use.


Depression, anxiety, and trauma diagnoses and symptoms were associated with higher odds of cannabis use among pregnant women in California. These results support previous qualitative findings that pregnant women self-report using cannabis to manage mood and stress3,4 and suggest a dose-response association, with higher odds of cannabis use associated with co-occurring depressive and anxiety disorders and greater depression severity. However, research is needed to determine the direction of these associations, because cannabis use might also cause or worsen mental health problems during pregnancy.

This study has several limitations. It takes place in 1 large health care system in California, and the findings may not generalize to all pregnant women. Cannabis screening at KPNC is limited to pregnant women at approximately 8 weeks’ gestation. Cannabis use may have occurred before women realized they were pregnant, and these findings do not reflect continued use throughout pregnancy. Furthermore, we are unable to determine whether our findings would differ among nonpregnant women treated at KPNC. Finally, urine toxicology tests may infrequently detect prepregnancy cannabis use.

The health risks of prenatal cannabis use to the fetus are complex and may vary with administration mode and frequency of use; however, no amount of cannabis use during pregnancy has been shown to be safe.6 Pregnantwomen should be screened for cannabis use, asked about their reasons for use, educated about potential risks, and advised to quit. Furthermore, early screening for prenatal depression, anxiety, and trauma, and linkage to appropriate interventions might mitigate the risk of prenatal cannabis use.