Michigan study on newborn drug testing highlights racial inequity in medical system

Newborn drug testing: photo of parent holding baby's feet.

According to a study from the University of Michigan, Black newborns in Michigan are more likely to be randomly screened for drugs following birth. The racial inequities uncovered highlight a need to dismantle structural racism that leads to these patterns, researchers concluded.

Newborn screenings are required in the state to look for rare diseases and potential health risks, but drug testing is not required. According to an assessment by the University of Michigan, what triggers newborn drug testing (NDT) is “unclear and inconsistent,” prompting researchers to wonder if race plays a role. All positive NDTs must be reported to CPS, leading to the investigation, criminalization, and surveillance of the parents.

The research objective was to examine the variations in ordered NDTs and their results separated by the race and ethnicity of the birthing parent. As a secondary point, researchers set out to understand changes in NDTs positive for THC since Michigan legalized cannabis in 2018.

Michigan’s Department of Family Medicine and Antiracism and Health Equity Program triggered the study, analyzing 23,366 live births to 21,648 parents between 2014 and 2020. The cohort consisted of birthing parents who received prenatal care at an academic medical center. Parents in the study were “low-risk,” meaning they did not require a prenatal urine drug screening.

Clinicians randomly selected Black newborn babies, accounting for 7.3% of NDT in the state compared to 1.9% of white newborns. THC testing was slightly more likely to come back positive in Black newborns than white newborns, 67.2% compared to 51.8%.

White NDTs were more likely to test positive for opioids than Black newborns, 22.% compared to 9.4%. Since legalization, the differences in numbers by race remain consistent following legalization in the state, though more NDTs come back positive for THC.

Results of the study display more frequent NDT requests for Black babies as compared to white, prompting researchers to demand further exploration of the institutional racism contributing to this data. In addition, as more birthing parents turn to cannabis to treat nausea and other pregnancy-related side effects, medical institutions must be aware of the subconscious (or conscious) bias related to ordering NDTs.

Cara Wietstock is Senior Content Producer of GreenState.com and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.