Scientists Got Lobsters Stoned To See If It Eased Their Death

The whole question of whether crustaceans feel pain and suffering is a surprisingly heated debate. Image credit: Roman023_photography/Shutterstock.com

In the fall of 2018, a Maine restaurateur began experimenting with the idea of giving her lobsters cannabis before they entered the cooking pot in the hopes of making their bubbling demise a little less unpleasant. In her experiments, she placed lobsters in a covered box with a bit of water at the bottom and pumped marijuana vapor through the water, effectively hotboxing the creature.

Local health authorities eventually told the restaurant to stop testing medical cannabis on the lobsters, but the story left a group of researchers wondering whether this was just a savvy PR maneuver or if the eccentric eatery was onto something.

In a new preliminary study, posted on the pre-print server bioRxiv (not yet peer-reviewed), scientists at the University of California San Diego, Colorado College, the University of Washington, and the Scripps Research Institute decided to find out whether cannabis could really be used to ease the suffering of American lobsters (Homarus americanus). 

"The 2018 minor media storm about a restaurant owner proposing to expose lobsters to cannabis smoke really was the starting point. There were several testable claims made and I realized we could test those claims. So we did," Dr Michael A Taffe, study author and Professor Adjunct at the Scripps Research's Department of Neuroscience, told IFLScience.

The team devised a similar method used at the Maine restaurant. The lobsters sat in a tank with water for 30 or 60 minutes, during which time vaporized tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC (the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana), was pumped into the tank using an e-cigarette device. The tank was essentially turned into a giant bong. 

Considering lobsters respire through gills, as opposed to lungs, it wasn’t even certain they would be able to absorb the THC. However, THC was confirmed in the lobsters’ hemolymph (the “blood” of the lobster), claw and tail muscle, brain, heart, and liver. Whether the THC actually eased any pain, however, remains to be seen. Cameras tracked the movements of the lobsters and found that the THC did slow down their movements, but they still instantly flinched at the sensation of hot water, indicating their pain was not subdued. 

"The effect of vapor THC on this nociceptive behavior was very minimal. Statistically supported in one case, but of very small magnitude," explained Dr Taffe.

In other words, the THC did very little to ease the sorrows of the lobsters as met their fate, although they did appear to be slightly more relaxed beforehand.

Beyond the small world of stoned lobsters, the question of whether crustaceans feel pain and suffering is a surprisingly heated debate. Some studies have shown lobsters avoid areas where they’ve been shocked, which is consistent with a key criterion for pain, but other scientists have argued that they lack the brain structures required to feel any “real” sense of suffering. 

This latest piece of research is unlikely to settle any of the debate, but at least we can now say with some confidence that a slightly high lobster won't enjoy a steaming pot of boiling water any more than a stone-cold sober lobster.


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