Pueblo’s hospitals and some doctors are petitioning to stop area sales of recreational marijuana because more Pueblo babies are testing positive for pot. (Associated Press file)

Babies testing positive: Pueblo worried about new moms, marijuana

Hospitals, doctors in city south of Denver join petition drive aimed at curbing recreational pot sales throughout the county because of an increase in newborns with pot in their bodies

Dr. Steven Simerville worries about the number of Pueblo babies being born with marijuana in their bodies.

The medical director of the newborn intensive care unit at St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center finds that mothers who abhor smoking cigarettes during pregnancy see no harm in smoking a joint.

“What I’m seeing in our nursery is a dramatic increase in babies who test positive for marijuana,” he said. “The interesting thing for me is the number of mothers who use marijuana and want to breast feed. They don’t believe marijuana is harmful.”

In an unusual political campaign, Pueblo’s hospitals and some of its doctors have joined a petition drive to stop sales of recreational marijuana throughout Pueblo County.

The petition, by Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo, contends the city and county have been harmed by the rapid proliferation of pot shops and commercial growers.

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Dr. Simerville said his concerns reflect those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has linked marijuana in newborn babies, a critical stage for brain development, to academic underachievement and behavioral disorders.

“There’s an education gap that we need to fill. It may be safe for adults, but not for adolescents and newborns,” he said.

To date, the Pueblo campaign appears isolated. The Colorado Hospital Association knows of no other communities or hospitals in the state undertaking similar efforts.

“Because this is a local ballot initiative, the association does not have a formal legislative position on this matter,” association spokeswoman Julie Lonborg said. “We would, however, say that CHA is delighted that the hospitals in Pueblo are working together to address a health concern in their community.”

One problem with evaluating the risks of maternal marijuana use to babies is that research on the subject is also in its infancy.

“Anecdotally, I think we are seeing more babies born with marijuana in their systems,” said Dr. Antonio Chiesa, a Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatrician who also serves on its child protection team.

But “there are still big research gaps in terms of safety — growth of the fetus, prematurity, neurological development and a possible increased risk for stillbirth.”

What is clear, she said, is that marijuana passes through the placenta to the baby, and “it’s definitely in breast milk.”

Because drug tests are performed only when a new mother is suspected of or admits to drug use, the percentage of positive marijuana tests has been high in Pueblo, but the absolute numbers have been low.

In March, for example, 52 babies were born at St. Mary-Corwin. Eleven of the mothers were suspected of drug use after a verbal screening, and five of their babies tested positive for marijuana.

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Despite hospital concerns, eliminating recreational sales throughout the county could be a hard sell. The new industry blossomed quickly in an old steel mill city that languished for decades.

Sal Pace, a Pueblo County commissioner, noted that county voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana sales in Colorado.

Now, “we’re seeing a significant economic boost” from marijuana businesses, he said, accounting for 60 percent of new construction permits and $3 million a year in taxes.

“We absolutely don’t want to see mothers using THC when they’re pregnant,” he said. But if Pueblo bans recreational marijuana sales, “these jobs and tax revenues will just go to another community. I don’t think we can afford to turn away these jobs and tax revenues.”

Dr. Karen Randall, an emergency medicine doctor in Pueblo, contends social costs have outweighed those revenues.

“Almost every shift I work,” she said, she meets someone who came for the marijuana — and who adds, “I don’t have a job, I don’t have a place to live, I don’t have money.”

The influx has overwhelmed Pueblo’s medical and social service systems, she said. “This is a huge social experiment, and we’ve failed.”

David Olinger: 303-954-1498, dolinger@denverpost.com or @dolingerdp

This story was first published on DenverPost.com