Prenatal Cannabis Use Linked to Increased Risk of ADHD, Autism and Intellectual Disability in Children

Cannabis Pregnancy Art Concept Illustration

Prenatal cannabis use is linked to an increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in children, highlighting the necessity for awareness and preventive counseling. Credit:

A study indicates a strong association between prenatal cannabis use and heightened risks of ADHD, autism, and intellectual disability in offspring, stressing the need for public health education and preventive measures against cannabis use during pregnancy.

A new study presented at the European Psychiatric Association Congress 2024 reveals a significant association between prenatal cannabis use disorder (CUD) and an increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and intellectual disability (ID).

Cannabis remains by far the most consumed illicit drug in Europe. Around 1.3% of adults in the European Union (3.7 million people) are estimated to be daily or almost daily users of cannabis.[1] Though males have a typically higher prevalence with regards to cannabis use, the latest statistics show that women are catching up with men in drug use, especially in the younger population.[2] There is increasing concern around the increase in cannabis use observed in younger females in the EU, especially among pregnant and breastfeeding women. This concern is amplified by recent studies that have shown that the content of delta9-tetrahidrocannabinol (THC) is currently around 2-fold higher than it was 15–20 years ago, therefore increasing the risk of adverse effects for young women and their offspring following use when pregnant.[3] Additionally, it has been noted that the prevalence of ADHD and ASD in children and adolescents is on the rise with estimates of 5.3% to 5.9% worldwide and 4.6% for Europe for ADHD and 1 in 2000 for ASD across the EU.[4,5,6]

This large-scale study, conducted by researchers at Curtin University in Australia, analyzed data from over 222,000 mother-offspring pairs in New South Wales, Australia. The research team utilized an innovative approach, leveraging linked data from health registries, ensuring both the exposure (prenatal CUD) and outcomes (neurodevelopmental disorders) were confirmed using diagnostic tools based on the ICD-10-AM classification system.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Children born to mothers with prenatal CUD displayed a 98% increased risk of ADHD, a 94% increased risk of ASD, and a 46% increased risk of ID compared to offspring without such exposure.
  • The study also identified a significant interaction effect between prenatal CUD and maternal smoking. Children born to mothers with both prenatal CUD and a history of smoking during pregnancy exhibited an even higher risk of developing ADHD, ASD, and ID.
  • Additionally, the research found synergistic effects between prenatal CUD and other pregnancy complications, such as low birth weight and premature birth, further increasing the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring.

These findings highlight the potential long-term consequences of cannabis use during pregnancy and emphasize the importance of preventive strategies.

Abay Woday Tadesse, lead researcher of the study at the Curtin School of Population Health commented on the findings, stating “The increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in children of mothers diagnosed with prenatal cannabis use that we have observed in this study underscores the critical needs for preventive measures, including preconception counseling, to mitigate the potential adverse outcomes.”

Professor Rosa Alati, Head of the Curtin School of Population Health and senior author of the study, added “These findings highlight the need to increase awareness of the risks associated with cannabis use during pregnancy among women planning to become pregnant.”

“This study is unique because it utilizes linked data with confirmed diagnoses, providing a more robust picture of the potential risks associated with prenatal cannabis use. The results underscore the need for public health education campaigns and clinical interventions to raise awareness about the potential risks of cannabis use during pregnancy and to support women in making informed decisions regarding their health and the well-being of their children,” explains Dr. Julian Beezhold, the Secretary General of the European Psychiatric Association.


  1. Cannabis – the current situation in Europe (European Drug Report 2023)
  2. “Gender Differences in Dual Diagnoses Associated with Cannabis Use: A Review” by Laura Prieto-Arenas, Ignacio Díaz and M. Carmen Arenas, 14 March 2022, Brain Sciences.
    DOI: 10.3390/brainsci12030388
  3. “Cannabis Use in Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women: Behavioral and Neurobiological Consequences” by Francisco Navarrete, María Salud García-Gutiérrez, Ani Gasparyan, Amaya Austrich-Olivares, Teresa Femenía and Jorge Manzanares, 14 September 2020, Frontiers in Psychiatry.
    DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.586447
  4. “The Worldwide Prevalence of ADHD: A Systematic Review and Metaregression Analysis” by Guilherme Polanczyk M.D., Maurício Silva de Lima M.D., Ph.D., Bernardo Lessa Horta M.D., Ph.D., Joseph Biederman M.D. and Luis Augusto Rohde M.D., Ph.D., 1 June 2007, American Journal of Psychiatry.
    DOI: 10.1176/ajp.2007.164.6.942
  5. “The Prevalence of DSM-IV Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Meta-Analytic Review” by Erik G. Willcutt, July 2012, Neurotherapeutics.
    DOI: 10.1007/s13311-012-0135-8
  6. Cross River Therapy – Autism in Europe: All The Facts

2 Comments on "Prenatal Cannabis Use Linked to Increased Risk of ADHD, Autism and Intellectual Disability in Children"

  1. Toeking Prieberth | April 23, 2024 at 10:13 am | Reply

    This article conflates “Cannabis Use Disorder” with “cannabis use during pregnancy”. If the women were diagnosed with a mental disorder, that alone dramatically increases the likelihood their offspring will be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

    Cannabis remains very illegal in Australia’s drug war. Only Canberra’s FCT has local cannabis legality but it remains illegal nationwide. Research conclusions under drug war conditions are highly dubious.

  2. Charles G. Shaver | April 23, 2024 at 1:53 pm | Reply

    While as only a senior lay American male I cannot comment authoritatively on how prenatal-cannabis use can relate to intellectual disabilities in children I can comment authoritatively on some of what is not included in the discussion, which should be. First, there is a kind of nearly subclinical non-IgE-mediated food (minimally) allergy reaction first identified, studied and reported on by then renowned American immunologist Dr. Arthur F. Coca, by 1935. Mainstream medicine still fails to recognize Dr. Coca’s (my) kind of practically harmless individual food allergy reactions as true allergies, which I’ve found to be intensified and/or extended by added artificially cultured “free” (can cross the blood brain barrier) monosodium glutamate (MSG) to become chronic and deadly dangerous, long-term (months to decades, highly individual), since the US FDA approval of the expanded use thereof as an alleged “flavor enhancer” in 1980. The time frames for the US, Europe and Australia are all consistent with the globally expanding use of added MSG. Furthermore, I believe the first question any truly scientific researcher should ask is: “Why are so many people using cannabis?” Obviously, to me, they are chronically mildly ill and their doctors are unable to diagnose what’s wrong with them. Any conversation about avoiding cannabis during pregnancy should also include avoiding added MSG, which should be permanently banned from all commercial food products intended for human consumption. Risk taking individuals could still use it as desired.

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