Contemporary Drug Problems
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Substance use in pregnancy has been a prominent public health concern for the last several decades. Since the legalization of cannabis in Canada and across several American states, cannabis use during pregnancy has gained considerable public health, scientific, and media attention. This critical interpretive synthesis explores how the problem of cannabis use in pregnancy is constructed in the scientific literature and illuminates clinical, social, and political responses this construction engenders. The state of empirical evidence regarding the impact of perinatal cannabis use is fraught; a number of studies, of variable quality, have found no associations between cannabis use and adverse neonatal outcomes, while others have found cannabis to be associated with low birthweight and prematurity among other risks. Despite the inconsistent nature of the evidence base, the literature is underpinned by two important assumptions: prenatal cannabis exposure is an asocial phenomenon that can be disentangled from the social determinants of health, and cannabis exposure has detrimental effects on fetal and neonatal health. These assumptions shape indicators of signal and noise in the data by influencing the significance ascribed to particular findings, producing patterns of data interpretation that ultimately transform evidence of potential harms into certain risks and creates the mirage of a cohesive, unambiguous evidence base. We argue that the way that cannabis use in pregnancy is framed as a scientific and public health problem in the literature contributes to the stigmatization of pregnant people who use substances. We caution that failure to consider the interplay between environment, resources and other social determinants of health may ultimately cause undue harm to families and foreclose opportunities for investments that may promote health and well-being.