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Absinthe in the United States?
An Overview of Absinthe's Legal Status in the U.S. as of Late 2007
by Lux and Fire Erowid
Nov 2007
Citation:   Lux, Erowid F. "Absinthe in the United States?". Erowid Extracts. Nov 2007;13:15.
See Also: The Absinthe Enigma and The Debate About Wormwood and Thujone Psychoactivity.


In 2007, several products labeled "absinthe", made with Artemisia absinthium, have been approved for sale in the United States. And yet, absinthe was "banned" in 1912 and no recent laws have been passed making it legal. Administrative interpretations of a complex set of existing laws regulating wormwood and thujone do permit low-thujone absinthe made following traditional recipes to be imported and sold. In fact, at least one brand of absinthe has been distributed in the United States for more than a decade, though it is not made with the traditional Artemisia species.

The TTB's regulatory interpretation has allowed at least four wormwood-containing absinthes to gain approval for sale in the U.S. this year.
Wormwood products not intended for human consumption--such as live plants, essential oils, incenses, and resins--are unregulated, and neither wormwood nor thujone is scheduled as a controlled substance in the U.S. However, Artemisia species and thujone are governed by some regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists α-thujone under the Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory, which regulates the manufacture of potentially hazardous substances.1 The Drug Enforcement Administration listed absinthe as a "chemical of concern" in 2006.2

[Erowid Note: Absinthe appears to have been removed from the Drugs and Chemicals of Concern list after this article went to press, some time between November and December 2007. A cache is available through the Web Archive Cache.]

Indicative of the current confusion around absinthe's legal status is the fact that, as of October 2007, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website states that, "The importation of Absinthe and any other liquors or liqueurs that contain Artemisia absinthium is prohibited."3 This rule appears to conflict with the reality that some approved absinthes are being imported from outside of the U.S.

It is widely reported that thujone is "banned" as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but thujone is not itself specifically regulated by the FDA. Thujone is only regulated in the context of five herbs, which are approved as food additives when the finished product is "thujone free".4 These approved herbs are: Artemisia spp. (wormwood), Thuja occidentalis (white cedar), Evernia prunastri (oak moss), Tanacetum vulgare (tansy), and Achillea millefolium (yarrow). Other herbs that contain thujone are FDA-approved yet have no such restriction. Several approved sage species including the common spice Salvia officianalis may contain higher thujone quantities than wormwood,5 but are listed by the FDA as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), and FDA regulations do not acknowledge their thujone content.

In September 2007, Erowid contacted the FDA to request information about its understanding of what regulations govern the thujone content of absinthe. An FDA spokesperson replied, pointing out the "thujone free" requirement of Title 21 of the U.S. Code, and stated that "FDA regulations do not specify an allowable amount [of thujone]."6 Title 21 identifies the test that must be used to show that samples submitted for approval are thujone free. The official procedure is described in section 9.129 of the Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Surprisingly, this procedure is not a modern quantitative analysis, but rather an outdated indicator test in which a sample of the product is distilled and reacted with various chemicals so that color and odor identify the presence of thujone. Samples resulting in a "raspberry red" precipitate supposedly show the presence of thujone, while negative samples appear similar to alcohol precipitate "from apple jelly or other light colored fruit".7 Although this test was criticized as imprecise as early as 1936 by an FDA analyst,8 it appears that the code governing thujone detection has not been updated to reflect advances in analytical chemistry.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has regulated alcohol-containing products in the United States since 2002, says on its website that natural flavorings used in alcoholic beverages must comply with FDA regulations. Using wormwood as the example, it states that finished products must be thujone free.9 However, when contacted by Erowid, the TTB Press Office explained that "the term 'thujone free' [] means less than the limit of detection of the specified method which is, in this case, 10 ppm. TTB will approve Certificates of Label Approval (COLA) for products that contain thujone if they contain less than 10 ppm of thujone".10 The TTB's regulatory interpretation has allowed at least four wormwood-containing absinthes to gain approval for sale in the United States this year.11

Amid much media coverage, Viridian Spirits first began marketing TTB-approved Lucid Absinthe in May 2007, boasting that they use traditional methods and include "a full measure of Grande Wormwood". Viridian Spirits has stated that, "Because Lucid is made with real Grande Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), it contains some thujone in an amount less than 10 parts per million. This meets U.S. requirements, which consider anything less than 10 ppm to be 'thujone free'."12

In stark contradiction to previous understandings of the thujone content of absinthe, some scientists and connoisseurs have recently argued that 10 ppm thujone is higher than most authentic absinthes. Ted Breaux of Viridian Spirits reported to the media that he analyzed several samples of vintage absinthe as well as absinthe he made using vintage recipes and found very low thujone levels. Given these findings, he told The New York Times that producing absinthe that conforms to European and U.S. thujone regulations would be fairly easy.13 However, neither Breaux's methodology nor his findings have been published in a peer-reviewed journal or popular publication and are not available online despite claims to the contrary in recent articles.

Breaux argues that high-thujone absinthes are inauthentic, pointless, and possibly dangerous, and that, "If you make absinthe the way you're supposed to, it's not even there."14 But of course his controversial claims, which contradict 150 years of scholarship, provide direct benefit to vendors who are at pains to persuade consumers that "thujone free" absinthe is the genuine article.

References #
  1. National Toxicology Program. "Summary of Data for Chemical Selection Alpha-Thujone (546-80-5)". Dept Health and Human Services.
  2. DEA Office of Diversion Control. "Drugs and Chemicals of Concern: Absinthe". Jun 2006. Accessed Oct 14, 2007; www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drugs_concern/absinthe.htm. [ cache ]
  3. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "Prohibited and Restricted Items". Accessed Oct 14, 2007; Cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg/prohibited_restricted.xml.
  4. Title 21 U.S. Code Ch I:Sec. 172.510. erowid.org/psychoactives/law/law_fed_additives.shtml.
  5. Ott J. Pharmacotheon. The Natural Products Co. 1993.
  6. Herndon M. FDA Press Office. Personal communication. Oct 4, 2007.
  7. The Wormwood Society. "Excerpt from The Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists". Accessed Oct 14, 2007; wormwoodsociety.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=50.
  8. Wilson JB. "Determination of Thujone in Absinth-type Liqueurs". Assoc of Official Ag Chemists. 1936;19(1):120-4.
  9. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ""Industry Circular 893:Formulas for Wines, Distilled Spirits and Flavors Used in Alcohol Beverages". Feb 23, 1989.
  10. Resnick A. TTB Director of Media and Public Affairs. Personal communication. Oct 11, 2007.
  11. Carter K. "Absinthe Flows Again, More Stylish Than Ever". USA Today. Sep 27, 2007.
  12. Viridian Spirits. "Lucid Frequently Asked Questions". viridianspirits.com. Accessed Oct 4, 2007; drinklucid.com/faq.cfm. [FAQ at http://www.drinklucid.com/#/About/FAQ as of Apr 2010]
  13. Koerner BI. "Absinthe: The American Remix". The New York Times. Apr 29, 2007.
  14. Turner J. "Green Gold: The Return of Absinthe". The New Yorker. Mar 13, 2006;38.