Your death is imminent. It will be painful. Minutes beforehand, your executioner hands you … a joint.
“If somebody offered me that option and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this first?’” said Charlotte Gill, the owner of Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound in Southwest Harbor, Me., “I would say a resounding ‘yes.’”
Ms. Gill wants to present that opportunity to the crustaceans whose deaths her business is built on, trying to use marijuana to get them high so they have a painless, stress-free plunge into boiling water.
In recent days, Ms. Gill’s methods have generated a fair amount of publicity as well as a healthy dose of skepticism: Can lobsters even get high? Do they feel pain? If a lobster can and does get high, could someone who eats it absorb the marijuana? And is any of this even allowed?
The answer to that last question appears to be no, at least for now, Maine says.
The state’s health inspectors “would treat food served to consumers at licensed eating places and affected by marijuana, as has been described with this establishment, as adulterated and therefore illegal,” Emily Spencer, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, said on Thursday.
“At this time,” she added, regulators do not “have information on the health implications or effects of ‘sedating’ lobsters with marijuana.”
In the course of her experiments with lobsters, Ms. Gill has unwittingly arrived at the forefront of marijuana science and regulation.
She says it is undeniable that the marijuana is having the intended effect. In a series of tests, restaurant employees put a lobster in a small container and added a few inches of water. They channeled marijuana smoke through a tube until the container was filled with it, and kept the lobster there for about three minutes.
Before the lobster went into the container, it would flap its tail and click and wave its claws. After being exposed to the smoke, the lobster was docile and serene, Ms. Gill said.
“It’s still a very alert lobster, but there’s no sign of agitation, no flailing of legs, no trying to pinch you,” she said. “So calm, in fact, that you’re able to freely touch the lobster all over without them trying to strike at you or to be aggressive in any way.”
This method is preferable, she said, to dropping a live crustacean into boiling water without the marijuana.
Ms. Gill, 47, grows the marijuana at her home, and she said she had a license to do so. Voters in Maine narrowly approved a measure in 2017 to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21.
But on Thursday evening, Ms. Gill said, she received notice from Maine’s health department that she was using the marijuana in a prohibited way because “it is supposed to be used only for myself and not a lobster.”
Ms. Gill, a self-professed animal lover, has faced a quandary since starting to serve lobsters about six years ago. She began investigating the marijuana idea this year with the staff at her restaurant, which is about 50 miles southeast of Bangor. As the experiment got publicity, some wondered if it was a marketing gimmick, but Ms. Gill maintained it was not.
Staff members have tested their urine after eating the marijuana-treated lobsters, she said, and no trace of the drug has been found. In the latest experiment, Ms. Gill’s 82-year-old father has been eating copious amounts of marijuana-sedated lobster every day; he will soon take a blood test.
She said she hoped her tests could prove to the state that the lobsters were not absorbing the marijuana. But as of Thursday evening, it appeared that plans toward making the lobsters available to the public had stalled. State regulators are still examining the issue, Ms. Spencer said.
Ms. Gill’s experiments touch on a continuing debate about whether lobsters feel pain. This year, Switzerland ordered that lobsters and other crustaceans should no longer be dropped alive into boiling water, saying that it caused the crustaceans pain and that other, more rapid methods should be used.
Whether lobsters can feel pain, however, is unclear, said Michael Tlusty, a professor of sustainability and food solutions at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has researched lobsters. Lobsters experience the world in fundamentally different ways than humans do, he noted.
“We’ve seen lobsters with significant injuries turn around and start eating again, pretty much right after their injury,” Dr. Tlusty said. “What does this mean in the perception of pain?”
Research on the effects of marijuana on lobsters is scant. But Dr. Tlusty said one research paper from 1988 did indicate that lobsters reacted in some way to a chemical in marijuana.
Joseph Ayers, a professor of marine and environmental sciences and biology at Northeastern University who has studied lobsters for four decades, said the crustaceans were too simple to feel pain as humans know it.
“They’re much simpler than insects,” he said. “They can’t report. This is really from the perspective of how we expect verification from humans. You’re probably never going to get that from a lobster.”
Could those simple brains get high?
“Who the hell knows,” Dr. Ayers said.
Kimberly Stuck, the founder of Allay Cannabis Consulting, which advises clients on how to comply with emerging marijuana laws, is skeptical that Ms. Gill’s experiment will do much.
“I’m not sure if it is doing anything to the lobster,” she said.
People are finding uses and applications for marijuana faster than the laws can keep up, said Ms. Stuck, a former marijuana specialist for the City of Denver. Regulators there had to issue a cease-and-desist order to a deli selling turkey smoked with marijuana, which infused it with the psychoactive ingredient THC, she said.
“There’s a lot of unknowns in cannabis; most of the regulations are in a gray area,” Ms. Stuck said. “In most of the country, the regulators don’t even regulate.”
Ms. Stuck said that when the authorities do regulate, they have to be more reactive than preventive.
“People are very creative,” she said. “They come up with all kinds of crazy stuff.”