We talk about a lot of drugs, and sometimes, we have to admit that not as much is known or understood, as we’d like to believe. Sometimes there’s much controversy over what a compound does, and discrepancy on safety issues. For example, psychedelics have shown generally safe, yet there are still plenty of stories of wild insanity, which isn’t really seen. When getting into this next one, there’s one story that says one thing, and one story that says another. So, what’s the answer when it comes to the green fairy? What is absinthe, and does it cause hallucinations?
Absinthe has quite the colorful past, but does it actually cause hallucinations? Cannadelics is a fully independent news platform focusing on cannabis and psychedelic stories, which you can keep up with by signing up for The Cannadelics Weekly Newsletter. Check out all attached deals for smoking paraphernalia, as well as cannabinoid products like: HHC-O, Delta-8, Delta-9 THC, Delta-10 THC, THCO, THCV, THCP, and HHC. There are plenty of weed products to choose from, and consumers should only make purchases they are happy with.
The history of absinthe is not very long, though the component inside it, wormwood, has been used for many centuries. There is a lot said about absinthe, namely, that it can cause intense hallucinations. Is this true? Let’s look at how the alcoholic drink came to be, and if the stories have any significance.
During the 1830’s, France conquered Algeria, and began its way into North Africa. More soldiers were sent in to combat local resistance, with sickness making its way through the ranks. Soldiers were given wormwood for the fevers and dysentery that were going around, and to repel insects. It became commonplace to stick the wormwood in wine, to make it easier to get the bitter liquid down. When the soldiers returned to France, their new drink came with them, called “une verte” for its bright green color. It grew in popularity among citizens.
The drink first gained prominence in the middle and upper classes, but it soon gained acceptance among poorer classes too; partly from the folklore that grew about crazy hallucinations, and partly because as an extremely strong drink, it can be watered down to go further than regular alcohol. More bang for the buck. By the late 1840’s, it was produced all over France, and had spread throughout Europe.
By the following decade, absinthe was co-opted by many artists and writers, and became associated with the genius of these arts. Absinthe became the drink of artists and libertines around the world, who spoke of its wonderful high and hallucinations. These included Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ernest Hemingway, and playwright Alfred Jarry. Oscar Wilde once made the statement: “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
Said Hemingway of it, that its “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy,” and that “it’s supposed to rot your brain out, but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas.” He was right about how it was viewed. While it was taken up by many in the arts crowd, outside of that world is became associated with madness over time.
Experimentation was done by psychiatrist Valentin Magnan in the 1860s, but methodology was so lacking, that results were challenged pretty widely. Magnon was trying to show a difference in absinthe consumption and alcohol consumption by putting either alcohol or wormwood in front of animals like rabbits and guinea pigs. In his experiments, the animals breathing in wormwood fumes got much more messed up than the ones that got drunk off alcohol fumes, but there was mass concern about tons of factors, like likening the results to a human subject.
In France, as more talk came out about the degradation of society and the weakening of French health, absinthe was more and more viewed as the culprit. Think of the growing problem with obesity in the US today, and the desire to pin it on nearly anything but the food we eat. Same concept. Absinthe became the scapegoat for the ills of society. As anxiety over this rose, absinthe became seen as “the poisoning of the population.” Soon, it was known as an abortifacient, that it sterilized men, and that it kept men from becoming soldiers (perhaps the real reason it was banned in the end).
The illegalization of absinthe
Absinthe enjoyed a quick rise to fame, but it just as quickly was dispelled from the spotlight. Only decades after its birth, positive talk of hallucinations turned to whispers of deadly illness. In August of 1905, in Commugny, Switzerland, Jean Lanfray killed his wife and two daughters after a night of heavy drinking. While we don’t know much about the situation at hand, or the general history of the family, it was decided by the small community of Commugny, that absinthe was the reason.
At Lanfray’s trial, absinthe was used as the reason for this violence, and no one wanted to listen to prosecutors who spoke of Lanfray’s general drinking problem, and how it had nothing to do specifically with that particular drink. It was pinned on absinthe in the end, but luckily this didn’t get Lanfray off the hook. He was found guilty of murder, and hung himself in jail.
The case kicked off massive anti-absinthe sentiment all over Europe, including petitions to get it banned. And this is subsequently what happened over the following years. By the time the U.S. Pure Food Board put through a ban in 1912, it was established in the press that absinthe was “one of the worst enemies of man, and if we can keep the people of the United States from becoming slaves to this demon, we will do it.” By 1915, it was completely gone from France, where it had started.
All this came before alcohol prohibition, which followed in its footsteps. In fact, it might have been the ability to remove absinthe that made over-achieving prohibitionists like Henry J. Anslinger, throw in his hat with alcohol. A move which obviously didn’t go as well. As far as absinthe, the global fear, propped up by faulty science, and pushed on by economic interests, led to the people themselves wanting it banished. For a long time, absinthe was barely seen, and was generally only made illegally.
As tends to be the case, when the hullabaloo dies down, and the lack of a real issue is made clear, public opinion often changes again. This is what happened with absinthe. In the late 90’s, and early 2000’s, absinthe bans were overturned, and the resulting limits for thujone (a compound within wormwood), were essentially not lower than what was used previously. This means the same product exists now as it did when absinthe came out, yet this time its not being fingered as the main problem in society. More appropriately, alcohol is taking the blame.
What is absinthe, and does it cause hallucinations?
We know French soldiers created an absinthe drink by putting wormwood oil in wine. In general, absinthe is always associated with very high proof alcohols, because its made using high proof alcohol. Some say this is the only basis for the inebriation that follows, and that any effects caused by absinthe, including hallucinations, are really just the alcohol. This high proof alcohol makes the drink into a wormwood tincture. A tincture is an alcohol extraction that’s made by putting plant material in high proof alcohol to get the plant compounds to leach into the alcohol.
This practice goes way back to ancient Greece, where wormwood leaves were soaked in spirits for use as a medicine. Wormwood was used to treat menstrual pain, jaundice, anemia, and rheumatism, among other issues. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a moderately poisonous plant found in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The main poisonous compound of the plant is thujone. Though many publications say thujone is unlikely to cause the effects attributed to absinthe, they also tend to add on that not enough is used in the drink to create the effects, creating a contradiction that implies a stronger drink could cause such a reaction. At high enough levels, thujone causes spasms and convulsions, which we do know for sure.
Thujone is a GABA antagonist, which does the opposite of what alcohol does. Thujone itself is a convulsant, but its thought that its interaction of interference with GABA can bring on stimulation and mood elevating effects, and this can happen with just small doses. For most of the early time of wormwood use, it was solely used as a medicine, and rarely (but sometimes) used for recreational purposes. This small occasional use, does indicate that there was a reason for it.
Absinthe is either drank straight, or used with a sugar cube. In the latter case, absinthe is mixed with cold water, and then trickled over a sugar cube, sometimes held on a slotted spoon. There is also a habit of lighting the absinthe on fire, but this isn’t relevant to anything, and came up as a practice later, likely making use of the high alcohol content. Most who get an effect describe it mildly, like an extra little kick in the drink. The mythology is much more intense, telling of wild hallucinations, and extreme highs, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Upon more research into thujone over the years, its believed by some that earlier absinthe concoctions had much more thujone in them, while others disagree on this point. Most of this chatter came out in light of re-legalization, so its hard to know if the stories are simply meant to quell any public fear that still lingered, or if they have relevance. There are also beliefs that thujone wasn’t the issue, and that the effects came from adulterants like copper sulfate, antimony, or chloride (insinuating that effects were most certainly felt). A last point to remember, wormwood has other constituents, and its not impossible, we’re focusing on the wrong one entirely.
The absinthe story is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Salamander Brandy‘ from Slovenia. In both cases, there is a plant or animal used that has psychoactive properties, but also in both cases, the use of alcohol itself is a factor. Salamander brandy ultimately was a way to sell cheaper liquor, with not much indication that the salamander had anything to do with it. In the case of absinthe, where a tincture is made with thujone, the compounds of the plant really do leach into the alcohol.
It’s hard to say for sure what absinthe (or rather, wormwood) is capable of. It’s quite possible, that like many other drugs, it has different effects on different people. Or, it could be the high proof alcohol, and nothing else. What we do know, is that a lot of plants cause a lot of psychotropic reactions, and that we’re always learning more. We also know that government bodies are sometimes very bad at getting us the right information. It suffices to say that wormwood does something, but the idea of extravagant hallucinations, is probably not it.
I’ve always loved absinthe, and I maintain it does make me feel slightly different than regular alcohol. Logically, if it didn’t, those French soldiers probably wouldn’t have brought it back with them. Even something that has a true effect can get romanticized past its actual good benefits, and I think this is where absinthe falls. In my opinion, it makes less sense to assume wormwood does nothing of the sort, than to assume its effects have simply been multiplied far past their actual abilities. Maybe absinthe doesn’t cause massive hallucinations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t make you feel good.
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