When news first spread that a Southwest Harbor restaurateur was using marijuana smoke to sedate lobsters before cooking them, reasoning that getting them high made their deaths more humane, scientists were skeptical.

However, new research out of California suggests that Charlotte Gill, owner of Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound, may have been on to something when she started getting her lobsters baked before they were boiled.

Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound in Southwest Harbor, where a sign on the window advertises compassionately treated lobsters. Courtesy of Charlotte Gill

Using Gill’s highly publicized method of hotboxing lobsters as a base, a team of scientists at the University of California San Diego set out to determine if there was science behind the sensation.

The researchers tested locomotion (how much and how fast the lobsters moved after THC exposure), THC content in lobster tissues and what reactions, if any, the crustaceans had to temperature changes.

In a paper that has yet to be published or peer-reviewed, scientists reported that exposure to the drug made lobsters slower, and that duration-dependent levels of THC showed up in their tissues. The experiment also showed that lobsters reacted to being submerged in hot water, but that the impact of THC on this reaction was minimal.

Gill’s claims that cannabinoids could be introduced into the lobster by “atmospheric exposure” and that this would have a behavioral effect are supported, they concluded, but the assertion that it dulls their reaction to being put in hot water is not.

Furthermore, whether the drug gets them “high,” or relaxes them at all, still remains to be seen.

“Further experimentation would be required to fully investigate other behavioral outcomes, including anxiety-like measures,” the scientists wrote.

Whether lobsters can even feel pain has long been a subject of debate.

Richard Wahle, director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said it can be hard to tell.

“Certainly lobsters do avoid and react to excessive heat and other noxious stimuli, … but do they perceive pain the way humans or mammals might?” he said. “We don’t know. We can’t ask them. We can look at physiological responses, (but) pain is such a subjective experience that it’s hard to make inferences.”

Even if scientists aren’t sure, Gill, a lifelong lover of all animals, whether feathered, furry or covered in carapace, has no doubts.

As a little girl, she’d walk across the street to the local lobster pound and, with all the money she’d saved, buy as many crabs and lobsters as she could, take them down to the pier and set them free. 

Now, decades later, she’s found herself as the proprietor of a restaurant serving up many of the little clawed crustaceans she once worked so hard to set free – an irony that Gill said became harder to stomach as the years went on. 

“The purpose of the restaurant … it’s about way more than the food,” she said. 

Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound has built its own little community, and in Maine, where lobster is king, it served as “the gateway drug to get people here.” 

The restaurant became a place that radiates “light and happiness,” she said, but it “became more and more obvious that all of this was happening at the expense of the lobster.” 

With a menu that seemed at odds with her love of animals, she considered making the menu vegetarian, but that would mean scrapping everything she’d built. So, instead, she turned her focus in 2018 to easing the lobsters’ passing. 

“If you can’t stop the process, then make it better,” she told herself. 

That’s when Gill, then a registered caregiver, thought of cannabis. The experiment was relatively simple. 

She and some of her employees took Roscoe, a “wildly frisky” lobster, and placed him in a few inches of saltwater in a plastic box, making sure all his gills were submerged. They made a small opening in the box, inserted a straw and piped cannabis smoke from the top into the water, essentially “hotboxing” Roscoe, Gill said. 

He was given three to five minutes of constant exposure and then removed. 

“What we saw was absolutely profound,” she said, calling Roscoe a “limp noodle” post-bake. 

After making sure there were no adverse effects and waiting for the high to wear off, Roscoe was released for his contributions to science. 

All in all, the experiment was re-created between 40 and 50 times, always with the same results – the lobsters were calmer, no longer climbing over each other and shooting their claws off, she said. 

Getting the lobsters high had another benefit, too. According to Gill, it made them taste better. 

“The meat is sweeter, lighter and better,” she said. “In my opinion, this is happening because there is little or no stress hormone in their system.” 

Wahle could neither prove nor disprove the claim, but said he was not aware of any rigorous taste test experiments that would support it.

That said, “testable questions is where the science starts,” he said. “It might be a project worth working on.”

Gill never served the cannabis-treated lobsters to customers, though she hopes to be able to one day. 

When she does, the lobsters won’t get customers high, she noted. With the short exposure time and high-heat cooking process, the THC is essentially removed. 

Drug tests following the consumption of small amounts of the lobster, and then copious amounts of the lobster, all yielded negative results. 

Not everyone was as thrilled with the tests. 

When news of Gill’s new method spread, the state health department stepped in and told her that as the owner of a restaurant, which is federally regulated, she cannot sedate lobsters with cannabis, which is still federally illegal, she said.

Regulators of the state’s marijuana programs did not confirm whether they were involved in investigating the lobster pound. But David Heidrich, spokesman for the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, said at the time that “medical marijuana may only be grown for and provided to persons with a marijuana recommendation from a qualified medical provider. … Lobsters are not people.”

Heidrich also noted that recreational marijuana products can be sold only in marijuana stores, which had not yet been licensed in 2018.

For now, Gill has found another, legal way of easing the lobsters’ passage: valerian.

Often referred to as “nature’s Valium,” valerian is a flowering plant known for having a calming, mildly sedative effect and is “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Gill either pipes the valerian vapor directly into the lobsters’ mouths or adds the plant to the water and essentially steeps them like a teabag.

Valerian works well and fast, she said, with results in just three to five seconds. She estimates that, compared to cannabis,  it’s about 75 percent to 100 percent as effective.

But it’s expensive. Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound doesn’t charge extra for sedated lobsters, so Gill is absorbing the cost. Cannabis, on the other hand, she could ultimately procure for free.

“We’re going to do our best to re-enter our cannabis sedation arena as quickly as possible,” she said, adding that with the fully realized recreational market, she hopes it could be as early as the fall.

Gill isn’t concerned that the study yielded slightly less impressive results than in her own experiment.

In fact, she’s encouraged.

“Their experiment differed drastically,” she said, citing the lab’s use of a vape cartridge, smaller doses and longer exposure times.

“The takeaway is even with completely adulterating the experiment, they still got results,” she said. “It’s absolutely awesome.”

Gill was unaware the research was even being done and said she wished she had been notified and given the chance to help guide the researchers.

“I can’t even imagine the results they would have had if they had done it the way we do,” she said.

The process of boiling lobsters alive isn’t one that developed from any scientific roots but has been an “unquestioned, longstanding practice for as long as people have been eating cooked crustaceans,” Wahle said, with people choosing the fastest way to get the freshest meat.

But recently, Gill and others have indeed started to question the practice.

In 2018, Switzerland joined New Zealand and Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, with a live-boil ban.

Instead, the animals must be killed or stunned beforehand. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as killing, say a fish, because lobsters lack a centralized nervous system, so something like a stab to the head won’t do it.

There are other ways, though.

For example, the “Crustastun,” a device approved by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, uses an electrical current to stun the crustaceans’ nervous system. It takes less than a second to stun the animal, and then 10 seconds to kill it.

According to Wahle, this device is used among many large lobster dealers and processors.

“Concerns about animal welfare have become more prominent, and so the industry is responsive to consumer concerns,” he said. 

Gill believes the research has the potential for ripple effects across the food chain. 

“If this type of process can work on a lobster, it really should be able to work on any creature in our food supply,” she said. “I’m not suggesting we put them all in bake box, … but if we can (ease their suffering) there is no downside.” 

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