WATCH | Against doctor's orders, pregnant women are turning to medical marijuana to fight a life-threatening condition that causes them to throw up 30 times a day.
Despite unknown health concerns, thousands of pregnant women are smoking marijuana to save their life and that of their unborn baby.
Jessica (we changed her name out of privacy concerns), 36, had hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a rare, but severe, morning sickness that causes weight loss and dehydration, typically from throwing up--a lot.
"Usually about 10-15 times day was the average. It's like having a terrible hangover all the time without having drunk any alcohol."
It's like having a terrible hangover all the time without having drunk any alcohol.
—Jessica on hyperemesis gravidarum
Like a 9-month hangover
About 2% of pregnant women are diagnosed with HG every year. HG can cause severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss and, sometimes, even death.
Against the doctor's orders
As 28 states and Washington, D.C., have moved to legalize marijuana to some extent, Jessica's part of a growing movement that sees marijuana as a better alternative to available prescription drugs.
The thing is that most doctors won't prescribe it. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology says there's not enough research on its effects on prenatal care to prescribe it confidently.
Why it might work
The anti-nausea and appetite-inducing properties in cannabis convinced Jessica to try medical marijuana.
"I went from losing 6 pounds before every doctor's visit to being able to just maintain my weight," said Jessica, a California resident who's had HG through all three of her pregnancies.
"There's still a lot of research that can be done on this topic," Dr. Leena Nathan, an ob-gyn at UCLA Health, told Circa.
"It's very difficult to design studies related to marijuana and pregnancy, just given the nature of harm that it could potentially have on the fetus."
Some studies have found that babies exposed to marijuana had developmental lags later in life. Others found it doesn't decrease birth weight. One study in 1994 in Jamaica, found that marijuana had no adverse effects on the child five years later.
An analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 3.85% of pregnant women reported smoking weed in 2014, up from a little more than 2% in 2002.
Finding a way around
While Jessica lives in California, where medical and recreational marijuana are legal, she didn't get prescribed marijuana for all three of her pregnancies, but it was her doctor who suggested she look into it.
"I was kind of shocked. But at that point, I'd tried everything," said Jessica.
Jessica isn't the only one who's tried marijuana while pregnant. A 2014study in the JAMA found that 4% of pregnant women had, too.
This is one of the groups you'll find on Facebook when searching "hyperemesis gravidarum." While the group isn't necessarily just for women using medical marijuana to treat their condition, a lot of women post about it.
A community growing on Facebook
It took searching "hyperemesis gravidarum" on Facebook for Jessica to find a closed support group with almost 10,000 members around the world.
There, women post about their experiences with HG, best treatment options and alternatives for women who don't live in a state where marijuana is legal.
One woman told Circa that the going got so bad, she was considering aborting her planned child right before she decided to try marijuana.
Most of the women who spoke to Circa spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"I'm a schoolteacher and am afraid child protective services may take my kids away from me for smoking while pregnant," one said.
And that's because in most states, testing positive for drugs while pregnant or right after birth is grounds for child welfare agencies to get involved.
Jessica says one of the hardest things to fight isn't the law or child welfare agencies--it's the looks from other parents she knows she would get if they saw her smoking from a vaporizer as she walked down the street.
She says that while she waits for marijuana to be legalized, she'll concentrate on fighting the social stigma from other parents.
"All of sudden, you're a bad parent. Me being able to give my growing child the nutrients it needs is more important than making sure I don't ruffle anybody's feather and hurt their feelings about a topic that they obviously know nothing about."