The Effects of Absinth, Introduction

Absinthe is a spirit. Less reputable sources sometimes refer to it as a drug, a narcotic, an hallucinogen or – an especially popular claim on the internet – an aphrodisiac. That absinthe is a psychoactive drug, or at least similar to one in effect is not true. The hysteria surrounding absinthe in the early 20th century fuelled the misconception that absinthe was a powerful intoxicant. It was said to cause psychotic episodes and epileptic fits. The truth however, is both more interesting and less sensational: Absinthe differs from almost all other drinks in containing a higher percentage of alcohol – up to 72% – and of course in containing extract of wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium. As we shall see it is these two factors which have had a major impact on its reputation.

The aim in this section is to examine these claims in more detail, with reference wherever possible to original sources. We look first at the acute effects of absinthe, the so called “secondary effects” and how they were represented by artists and writers of the Belle Époque, secondly we briefly overview the scientific consensus on thujone, widely believed to be the primary active ingredient in absinthe, and lastly we consider the effects of chronic abuse of absinthe – a controversial syndrome which doesn’t exist today (and which may never have existed), but which was referred to as “absinthism” by 19th century scientists.

The actual effect of well-made absinthe varies from person to person, but could be described as similar to the mild high one gets from drinking any strong alcoholic drink. It could also be described as an elevated intensity of consciousness. This sensation seems to wear off after 20 or 30 minutes. Some users report unusually lucid and picturesque dreams. A significant percentage of drinkers experience nothing unusual at all, outside of the effects of the alcohol itself. Since absinthe is 55% – 72% alcohol, the alcohol’s effects will in any event limit the amount of thujone you can ingest. While wild claims can be easily dismissed, absinthe undoubtedly has “something”, at least in the subjective experience of many regular drinkers.

Anti-absinthe card based on an engraving by M. G. Darré originally published in 1883 in Le Monde Illustré.