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Is it illegal to import absinthe into the US?
Q: I recently found some sites on the net selling real absinthe (has wormwood in it) from Spain & Portugal. I talked to someone on irc who said they had gotten some. Is it legal for me to buy real absinthe from Europe?

A: First, if you haven't already, check out the Absinthe Law Vault

As with most laws in the US, the answer is muddied by a set of interlocking rules and regulations and no way for individuals to ask in-depth questions from the agencies who are in charge. The FDA is the US government agency that has controls on the use of wormwood and other thujone-containing plants as additives in food and alcohol.

The FDA has the power to ban for human consumption foods and supplements which are 'known harmful'. It has a list of food additives in Title 21, Volume 3, chapter I, Part 172.510 "Food Additives Permitted for Direct Addition to To Food For Human Consumption, Subpart F Flavoring Agents and related substances". In that section, it states that "Wormwood (Aretemisia spp.)" may be added to food only if the resulting product is "thujone free".

I wasn't able to find a strict definition of what "thujone free" means. Testing of this sort is done with cutoff levels: there's no way to test if something is 'free' of a chemical, you can only test to see if there is enough to detect using a particular test. In 1979 the WHO (World Health Organization) set allowable thujone level of "0.5 ppm in food and beverages, 10 ppm in alcoholic beverages containing more than 25% alcohol, 5 ppm in alcoholic beverages containing less than 25% alcohol, and 35 ppm in bitters (Galli et al., 1984)."
(see Unfortunately, the FDA measures 'thujone free' by some standard not published with the law: "...determined by using the method (or, in other than alcoholic beverages, a suitable adaptation thereof) in section 9.129 of the ``Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists,'' 13th Ed. (1980)".

Whatever the exact cutoff level, its going to be very very low. So, clearly absinthe with wormwood is not allowed for sale for human consumption in the US.

The next question is whether it is allowed for sale into the US from another country. I looked through the FDA's importation rules and they were very clear. "These laws apply equally to domestic and imported products... All imported products are required to meet the same standards as domestic
goods."(see the FDA's Import Export Introduction)

This is what we would expect. So I think we've established that the FDA believes that it is illegal to sell thujone containing drinking liquor inside the US and it is illegal to sell it into the United States from another country.

But as far as I know, the FDA's rules don't allow them to prosecute buyers of unapproved foods & drugs, only the sellers. Unfortunately we don't know anyone who is an expert in this area of law nor anyone at the FDA willing to answer our questions.

So, the situation, as I understand it:

  1. It is illegal to sell thujone containing absinthe in the US for human consumption.
  2. It is illegal for someone outside the US to sell thujone containing absinthe to someone inside the US.
  3. It is not illegal to purchase thujone containing absinthe for personal use in the US.
  4. It is not illegal to purchase thujone containing absinthe for personal use from outside the United States
  5. Thujone containing absinthe can be seized by US customs (if it appears to be for human consumption).

Asked By : greenfee
Answered By : earth
Published Date : 3 / 10 / 2001
Last Edited Date : 3 / 11 / 2001
Question ID : 2693

Categories: [ Law ] [ Absinthe ]

Ask Erowid v1.7 - Jul, 2005

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