To toke or not to toke

Is it OK for a breast-feeding mother to get high -- just once?

Published August 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Buzzed,

I love getting loaded -- pot, 'shrooms, pot, peyote -- when I can score. Did I say pot? But since I became a mama and my little rug angel has been living off the pure fluid of my big ol' Gaea body, I've had to hold off on the altered states. Seriously, my sister is coming to town and she and I are like Courtney Love and Julia Butterfly Hill. So we only really understand each other when we're high. My husband is taking a day off from his job as a corporate executive to let his hippie wife have a little downtime. So my question is, should I toke or not toke?

My sister says go ahead, but my husband overheard me talking on the phone with her about the dilemma, and he got irate, even threatening to turn me in to the police! So what do you say? It's only one time. Isn't there a way of cheating or something? How long will I be toxic after I get high? What if I pump some milk and throw it out? I really want a break from this maternal sobriety, but I won't do it unless I get a go-ahead from some serious expertise.

Good Mother Who Needs to Get Stoned

Dear Good Mother,

You have been making some good decisions. You are not taking drugs that might affect your baby, and you are not taking drugs that might keep you from taking good care of your baby. You also have good scientific intuition -- you understand that the drugs that you take wind up in your breast milk and in your baby. For those without your good intuition, there is an easy rule of thumb: Anything that gets into your brain gets into your breast milk, and into your baby and his or her brain. This includes pretty much every drug you might take for fun -- alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin and of course the THC in your beloved pot.

You also seem to understand that the THC in the pot will stay in your breast milk for a long time. It takes as many as eight days for 90 percent of the THC from one joint to leave your body, so a one-time fling would probably leave a modest amount of THC in your breast milk for at least a few days.

The big question is what the pot is going to do when it gets into your baby's brain. Here, there is a limit to what science can tell you. The simple version of the story is this: We know that a lot of THC is bad for babies, but we cannot tell you if there is a low amount that is safe. After birth, neurons are still being born and forming connections with one another. We have learned recently that a very brief exposure to alcohol during this period in rats damages specific places in the developing brain, leaving the animals impaired for life. So we are fairly sure that exposing a newborn baby to some drugs, even for a brief period, can be harmful. But there is just no scientific data about exposure to low levels of pot during the newborn period. Science so far has no answers here.

To be safe, we recommend that you abstain from pot as long as you are breast-feeding.

Buzzed appears every Wednesday in Salon Health. Do you have a question? E-mail us at

By Cynthia Kuhn

Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., is a professor of pharmacology at Duke University Medical School and heads the Pharmacological Sciences Training Program at Duke. She is coauthor of "Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy" and of the forthcoming book "Pumped: Straight Facts for Athletes About Drugs, Supplements and Training."

MORE FROM Cynthia Kuhn

By Wilkie Wilson

Wilkie Wilson, Ph.D., is a professor of pharmacology at Duke University Medical School. He studies how drugs affect the brain, particularly the processes of learning and memory. He is also coauthor of "Buzzed" and of the forthcoming book "Pumped."

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