November 12, 2006
It's been called mind-altering. It's even said to have been the cause of murder. It's a strong alcohol, but some say it's a dangerous drug. It's called Absinthe.
It was banned in the United States almost a century ago. Although it's still illegal, it appears to be making a comeback.
The green fairy, it refers to Absinthe. It's a very strong, green alcohol derived from herbs.
It was the focus of paintings by authors like Picasso and Van Gogh. Hemmingway also drank it regularly.
But some consider it a drug. Historically, people who used it reported hallucinations, calling it a mind-altering drink. By the late 1800s, it was in cafes and bars throughout Europe.
"Everyone was using it," explained Dr. Chris Holstege. "Then crimes started to be committed, and then murders were committed- some very high-profile murders were committed. So then people started taking a critical look at Absinthe, and saying this may not be good for society."
Soon Absinthe was seen as a dangerously addictive, psycho active drug. It was banned in many European countries and in the U.S.
But then in the late 1990s, it began to reappear in bars throughout Europe. When the European Union was formed, most of the old bans went away.
Holstege decided to dig a little deeper, publishing a study on Absinthe.
"There hadn't been any articles looking at Absinthe," said Holstege. "We knew that it was making a comeback. We knew that Absinthe bars were starting to pick up in Europe. I'd seen students coming back stating, 'hey I've been in Europe, what is Absinthe?'"
Holstege found that Absinthe is a unique beverage.
"There's no doubt there is more than just alcohol in these products. The question is what is that doing, and why did that have such an allure at the turn of the century?"
The key ingredient in most Absinthe is Wormwood. And while Absinthe is still illegal in the U.S., it's unique ingredient is easily found in herbal stores across the country. The wormwood is also partly what makes studying Absinthe and it's effects so challenging.
"That's why the research is so difficult of herbal products. It's not just one chemical to study. There's hundreds of chemicals in there, the question is which one is causing the effects," said Holstege.
And while potentially negative, or even dangerous, side effects are still unclear, the internet is making buying or making the beverage easier than ever.
Type "Absinthe" into a search engine online, and most of the results are for sites selling it. Although it's illegal to buy or sell absinthe in the U.S., most of these sites will deliver it to U.S. customers.
With use on the rise, and so much about Absinthe still unclear, there may be cause for concern.
"People who were to chronically use it, drank it everyday, could that lead to them to have psychosis? Literature is not there right now. There certainly were concerns at the turn of the century," said Holstege. "If it starts making a resurgence in the United States, it would be nice to know does it or does it not cause problems?"
So while more and more bars serving Absinthe are popping up overseas, and more and more sites are popping up online, Holstege says Absinthe should be approached with caution.
"If you have a seizure disorder, I wouldn't drink it. If you have a psychiatric disorder, I wouldn't drink it. And realize that by drinking it you are taking somewhat of a chance because there is not enough evidence out to know what to make of it," he warned.
But with such a mystique and allure surrounding Absinthe, it's likely people will continue to take that chance.
Since Holstege's report was published, there are now a number of studies looking into the effects, both long and short term, of Absinthe.
Here in the U.S., the ban on the beverage has remained unchanged since 1912.