Doctor Melanie Dreher
Despite political pressure to have it otherwise, Dr. Dreher's research reveals that pot-smoking moms can have smart, healthy babies.
By PETE BRADY
Dr. Melanie Dreher is one of a handful of
scientists who have researched marijuana objectively and intelligently in the last three
Dr. Dreher is Dean of the University of Iowa's College of Nursing, and also holds the post of Associate Director for the University's Department of Nursing and Patient Services. She's a perpetual overachiever who earned honours degrees in nursing, anthropology and philosophy before being awarded a PhD in anthropology from prestigious Columbia University in 1977.
Although Dreher is a multi-faceted researcher and teacher whose expertise ranges from culture to child development to public health, she began early on to specialize in medical anthropology. After distinguishing herself as a field researcher in graduate school, Dreher was hand-picked by her professors to conduct a major study of marijuana use in Jamaica. Her doctoral dissertation was published as a book titled "Working Men and Ganja," which stands as one of the premier cross-cultural studies of chronic marijuana use.
Along with being a widely-published researcher, writer, and college administrator, Dreher is a professor or lecturer at several institutions, including the University of the West Indies. She recently served as president of the 120,000 member Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honour Society, has been an expert witness in a religious freedom case involving ganja use by the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, and is one of the most well-respected academicians in the world.
Governmental and private organizations, including the US State Department, have funded Dreher's many research projects, some of which focused on ganja's role in Jamaican culture, and the effects of ganja and cocaine on Jamaican women and children.
Dreher has impeccable credentials and a wealth of proprietary information on ganja use, but when she released solidly-researched reports showing that children of ganja-using mothers were better adjusted than children born to mothers who did not use ganja, she encountered political and professional turbulence. Some observers accuse the government and anti-pot groups of working to suppress her findings, but Dreher continues to speak openly about her research.
When Dreher spoke to Cannabis Culture from her office at the University of Iowa, she was affable and intriguing, pleasantly but firmly defending her right to study ganja use and to publish valid scientific findings regardless of political pressure.
DR. MELANIE DREHER
@: How did you first become involved in studying ganja in Jamaica?
Dr. Dreher: I had already spent one summer
in Jamaica studying obeah, a kind of black magic, and my professor, Dr. Lambros Comitas,
felt that if I could study an illegal and underground practice like obeah then I could
probably get information on ganja use.
This was in the 70's, when American pundits were saying that marijuana caused people to be lazy and dysfunctional. We were especially interested in testing the notion that ganja caused an amotivational syndrome. My dissertation research studied various kinds of men's work, primarily agricultural work, and how ganja interacted with that.
Jamaica was a great place to study because these men used ganja every day for eight to ten years, unencumbered by cocaine or other drugs, and just a little bit of tobacco or alcohol, so you could really measure how ganja affected them. After nearly two years of study in Jamaica, I'd found ganja was used to stimulate work. The amotivational syndrome, whatever it was, certainly didn't manifest itself in the people I studied.
@: So you just walked up to Jamaican villagers and started asking them about ganja? Weren't you afraid they'd think you were a police agent?
It was an interesting experience! I
had never smoked anything, not even a cigarette. I'm a white woman, a former
cheerleader, about as 'American' as you could get. I didn't have an intermediary or
liaison. I went into villages and politely introduced myself as an American student.
I established trust by going to church and schools and living with these people,
telling them I was there to study certain aspects of their culture, especially herbs and
particularly marijuana, and people began to trust me. They gave me a few social
tests to see if they could really trust me, and after I passed those tests pretty soon I
was going into their fields and seeing where ganja was grown, dried, stored, processed and
There is a cultural division between men and women in this culture, but even though I was a woman, as a white American researcher I had more privilege and access to men's rituals than a Jamaican woman. I got to sit with the men surrounded by these big clouds of smoke, and as they smoked their chillums I asked questions about ganja use and took notes.
@: So ganja ue had its own cultural identity and rules?
Yes. Ganja use is governed by customs,
beliefs, and social rules. Ganja arrived in Jamaica through the Indian indentured
labour; Indians brought with them this whole tradition of preparation of teas, tonics,
hash, cooking ganja in food.
The Jamaican ganja-users, except for the Rastas who tend to use more ganja than the people we studied, had strict cultural contexts in which to use marijuana. It isn't like in the US where people indiscriminately light up and walk around all day stoned. The Jamaicans prescribed certain situations and ways to use ganja.
There were people prohibited from using it. When you smoked you had to act a certain way - serious, intelligent, reasonable. A man who used ganja and got silly or got the munchies or laughed too much or acted like a fool - the other men stopped smoking with him because they felt the ganja was a spiritual thing. It's to be taken seriously in a mature arid responsible way.
A whole set of cultural rules guided use and made sure it was positive. The set and setting and cultural traditions in Jamaica made ganja use a positive thing. It's useful to study ganja in a place where its use is not just a recreational activity - its use is sacramental, medicinal and social, but it is designed to be a thoughtful activity - not like you stop at the store and get a six pack of beer to get drunk.
@: Did ganja culture affect how men and women used ganja?
It did. The men believed that ganja
inhaled went to the brain and had a psychoactive effect, but that ganja consumed as tea or
tonic went into the blood and had a health effect rather than intoxication. They
only allowed men to smoke ganja because they didn't believe women had the right kind of
brain for it.
Now there are physiological differences between men and women, and it's also true that ganja eaten or ingested as tea follows a different route in the body than ganja smoked, but I am not expert enough in this to comment on whether the cultural tradition is supported by science.
Women were allowed to control the medicinal use of ganja. I spent lots of time with rural women, who taught me how to make ganja tonics and teas. They were the administrators of ganja, often the producers and sellers of ganja. It gave them some power and income, like a cottage industry. They gave ganja to men and children as teas, and they knew how to titrate the strength of marijuana teas so a new baby would get just a leaf's worth but men and boys got more, so they could go and work in the fields with enough strength to survive the hard days.
@: So women never got to smoke ganja?
When I first started research in Jamaica in
1970, women were the ganja medicine specialists but there was a social rule that women
should not smoke. The only time women were allowed to smoke was in a pre-sexual
context. Everybody believed ganja was an aphrodisiac, they said it made both sexes
more powerful, makes you like sex more, makes you concentrate on lovemaking more.
It was not used as a clandestine seduction tool like alcohol. That's not to say that like at a dance if young men were smoking, a young woman wouldn't say "Give me a draw," but it was very innocent, I never saw an attempt to use marijuana as seduction or date rape.
Back then, women were smoking secretly. If a man didn't finish the whole spliff then after he went to work the women might smoke a little. Women said it helped them do their housework and be good to their children. So the women had to sneak around to smoke it but they were expected to openly administer its medicinal use.
The real focus of the women was to have marijuana to prepare for tea for their children to make them healthier and smarter and help them have better school performance and help them concentrate.
@: Has your subsequent research found changes in the use of ganja by Jamaican women?
Yes, as the role of women has changed
economically and socially, some women have been able to smoke ganja openly with the men.
They're called "roots daughters", which is a term of respect meaning that
they can smoke as hard as a man and maintain a dignity of conversation and behavior.
They can smoke ganja and reason with men, have debates about serious topics like
politics and religion. They are considered to be principled women who are astute and
Another characteristic of these women is they tend to be economically independent and resourceful. They don't expect that men will have the sole burden of supporting households. Many of these women are working for themselves, and a significant number of them are involved in ganja sales, along with work such as farming and other commercial enterprises. They build their own houses and become less dependent on men, or on one man, for their livelihood.
Part of this change came from Rastafarianism, because Rasta women do smoke ganja chronically as part of their religious rituals. Older women have built up their roles as ganja administrators, while older men may have to decrease their ganja use once their days in the fields are over. The society is changing, experience with ganja is changing, and women smokers are becoming more visible then before.
@: Give us a general overview of the studies you've done on ganja during pregnancy.
When I noticed that increasing numbers of
women were smoking marijuana, I decided to study prenatal marijuana exposure and its
effects on children. Most of the studies done in North America had serious confounds
and results which just did not hold up under scrutiny.
We did ethnographic studies which examined the lifestyles of mothers who used ganja and mothers who didn't use ganja, and compared behavioral characteristics of neonates from both groups in the first month of life. We later went back and looked at the children with a five-year follow-up study.
@: How did your studies differ from other studies?
Up to that point, most studies which
examined marijuana use during pregnancy were flawed by serious methodological problems.
They couldn't control for so many variables, and the negative effects they blamed
on marijuana could well have been caused by other things.
My studies are among the few which actually measured how much ganja a woman has consumed. I wasn't sitting in a clinic somewhere divorced from women's lives asking them how much marijuana they'd used - my research team is in a community and in the field where we can observe these women and check out their reports. We know how much ganja, and what type and potency, they are consuming. We had ways of verifying the amount of ganja they consume; neighbors would come and tell us what was going on, so we could compare that to what we had been told by the mother.
We had a setting in which we knew that the women were only exposed to marijuana. In most North American studies the women were using all kinds of drugs like alcohol, tobacco, speed and cocaine during prenatal studies, and there was no way for the researchers to know what or how much. We knew what our test subjects were doing and this gave extra credibility to our work.
A lot of media publicity had been given to US studies which purported to show that marijuana caused birth defects or serious developmental problems, but most of this research involved participants who were multi-drug users who had a terrible social support network that probably caused the problems. Instead, these problems were blamed on marijuana.
@: Is it possible that American women didn't know how to use marijuana intelligently? Did you find that Jamaican women had more ganja wisdom?
American drug use often takes place without
cultural rules and in an unsupervised context. The Jamaican women we studied had
been educated in a cultural tradition of using marijuana as a medicine. They
prepared it with teas, milk and spices, and thought of it as a preventive and curative
substance. Smoking it during pregnancy was a way of relieving nausea, increasing
appetites, combating fatigue and depression, providing rest and relaxation. Some of
these women were in dire socioeconomic straits, and they found that smoking ganja helped
allay feelings of worry and depression about their financial situation.
Our testing showed that the children of women who used ganja had better alertness, stability and adjustment than children of women who didn't use ganja. This was measured at the age of one month. We measured children again at four years and at five years of age, and found that there were no apparent deficits in the children of marijuana-using mothers. In fact, in many ways, they were better off than children of non-smoking mothers. The ganja-using mothers also seemed better off than non-users.
@: Since these results contradicted the hysteria of drug war assertions, did you find it hard to get your studies published?
I insisted on publishing in a medical
journal - I wanted the academic community to understand that the jury was still out on
marijuana and that's why we do cross-cultural studies to determine how drugs really affect
people. It isn't logical to look just at one culture's problems with a drug and
conclude that that's a universal situation.
The medical community needed to see that these results, which came from very solid research methods, were far different than what they are usually exposed to. They needed to see that women who smoked marijuana are not bad mothers. I am so damned sick of picking up a woman's journal or a tabloid and seeing some article saying that if you smoke even one marijuana cigarette during pregnancy you are a bad mother and you're doing permanent damage to your baby. There's no evidence to back up these warnings, and in my studies the evidence points in the other direction.
@: It sounds like you're frustrated about the influence of politics and inaccuracy in the reporting of marijuana research findings.
I just want researchers to use good research
methods and to tell women the truth. I think these hyperbolic warnings about
marijuana and pregnancy have made women absolutely nuts.
I got a call from a woman who was in tears because she and her husband had waited several years to adopt a baby and finally she had found a baby to adopt, but somebody told the couple they couldn't adopt the baby because the baby had tested positive for marijuana. "Oh for god's sake," I said, "Go adopt your baby. Love your baby. Your baby is going to be just fine."
Now they're talking about charging women with child abuse if they test positive for drugs during pregnancy. It's a slippery slope. Where's it going to stop? Are we going to arrest women for sitting on the couch eating junk food watching television during pregnancy? We are on the way to the Stepford Wives.
So one of my goals with this research was to get the message to physicians: so women smoke a little marijuana - big deal. Let women enjoy their pregnancies. If there's something seriously wrong with their baby it would have occurred no matter what - marijuana or not. Things have gotten so strange in regard to babies. We have to have the perfect baby and if not, well somebody or something has to be blamed. It must have been a whiff of paint she smelled, or a glass of wine, or a cigarette, or a draw of marijuana... It's ridiculous.
@: Can you comment on the issue of crack babies?
I have tended to be vary skeptical of crack
baby findings. I have studied cocaine use in Jamaica, and have studied children
exposed to crack pre-natally who are doing fine.
I think the problem with crack is what happens after birth. The babies are often abused by mothers or others in the home; cocaine is just part of a terrible environment. Ironically, Rastas are the only group who refuse to participate in the cocaine trade. They think it's poison. Women use ganja to kick cocaine withdrawal; they use ganja during cessation to get enough of a comfortable anti-depressant feeling so that they don't have to use crack.
Some start using what they call a seasoned spliff, which is a marijuana cigarette seasoned with crack. Having the pot in there seems to relieve the precipitous drop from the crack high to a paranoia which would otherwise force them to smoke crack immediately again. They are high enough on the pot and the crack drop doesn't make them crazy like it would if they were using crack by itself.
The American government's approach to cocaine and ganja in Jamaica has been very counterproductive. The DEA finds it easy to see and go after ganja fields, but almost nothing is being done to stop cocaine, which is ravaging the country. Its very sad.
@: I heard that political pressure influenced your subsequent research grants and the academic journal that you were going to publish your findings in.
It did take us a while to get published.
We had to do revisions that I thought were unnecessary. It would be hard to
classify the request for us to do revisions as politically motivated. I just thought
that these people who wanted the changes made haven't got a clue about Jamaica or
ethnographic research. They went on vacation once to Jamaica and drew some
I felt that the revisions suggested were often based on ignorance of Jamaican culture and prejudice against ganja. The same problems were evident in letters that the journal received after publication. The letters contained unfounded criticisms, and I had to explain that I was doing anthropological research that nobody else was doing. I wasn't measuring physiology with test tubes. I was measuring behavior, reporting how these women and their children acted.
These babies are doing great. It wasn't necessarily due to marijuana, but pot-smoking mothers were apparently good mothers and the marijuana didn't appear to be hurting the babies. I have said repeatedly that I am not recommending that you smoke pot to have a healthy baby, but I am saying let's not castigate women who use a mild substance during pregnancy.
After doing research in Jamaica funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) from 1988 to 1991, I submitted two follow-up proposals in 1993 and 1994 and got news that never ever do they want to see those proposals again. They had done one of the worst reviews of a proposal that I had ever seen. Really weak.
I thought I should call NIDA and tell them this shows a lack of understanding of any type of unbiased research on the issues involved and what we're trying to do. It was a damning review, misguided and misinformed. I have to think that this was due to a political consideration, not an honest review of my work.
I'm 55, in my 15th year as dean, I testified in a trial and the prosecution brought out that I was once on the board of NORML, and involved with a group called POT (Patients Out of Time) and wrote an article for a medical marijuana book. So what? I am a good researcher. Nobody knows more about marijuana use in Jamaica than I do, and I am prepared to speak about that and don't care what people try to do against me because of it. I felt that this last denial at NIDA was motivated by anti-pot ideology, but since that time I was funded by the National Institute of Health.
@: Has your career suffered because you've objectively researched marijuana? Do you feel you've been persecuted because of your research?
There may well be persecution, but if there
is, I don't obsess over it. I'm a very good dean and highly regarded in the nursing
and academic communities. Somebody asked rne if I was worried about DARE coming
after me, and I thought: Isn't that the organization that gets children to report on their
I am going to continue doing good research and disseminating the results. Am I worried about persecution? Well, I have a secure academic position and could be a nurse again if I had to, but some of these researchers haven't got something to fall back on so they have to please NIDA and find what they're supposed to find. To a large degree, the politicization of such research has corrupted the research process. I'm never going to be a part of that.
Next Issue: More about Dreher's research into Jamaican cannabis medicine, and how ganja affects children and mothers. Be sure to subscribe today, so you don't miss the fun-filled conclusion to the Dreher saga.
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