Absinthe: Was The Famous Drink Really Mind-Altering?

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THE STUDY MAY 4, 2011

Absinthe: Was The Famous Drink Really Mind-Altering?

Almost a century after banning absinthe, the French government will re-legalize the famous alcoholic drink. Known as "the green fairy" to its many aficionados, the emerald-colored liquor was hugely popular with artists in the late 19th century, especially in Paris. The temperance movement, though, campaigned heavily against absinthe, claiming that absinthe made its drinkers hallucinate and even go insane. Thanks to the temperance movement's political strength, absinthe was banned in many countries in the early 1900s. Of course, all strong liquors have their risks, but was absinthe really mind-altering?

Few credible studies of absinthe's effects survive from the 19th century, but most scientists believe that any harmful effects (in addition to effects of alcohol, obviously) are most likely due to the presence of thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, one of the herbs used in the distillation of absinthe. In the September 2004 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, scientists from the University of Heidelberg published a study of absinthe's effects on mental performance and mood, using different levels of thujone. There was no difference in effects between the drinks with low amounts of thujone (10 mg/l, the limit under European laws) and drinks without thujone, but drinks with high amounts of thujone (100 mg/l, stronger than even the amount in late 19th century absinthe) did decrease peripheral vision and reaction times. There were no hallucinogenic effects at either level. In short, absinthe was never the mind-altering drug it was made out to be.

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