Artemisia absinthium, more commonly known as wormwood, is the ingredient commonly blamed for the hallucinogenic properties of absinthe. Specifically, a byproduct of wormwood called thujone was considered to be the culprit. Throughout the years, this compound has been labeled as a hallucinogenic and psychoactive (said to affect the brain in a similar way as THC). The truth is – this is not the case.
In the late 1800’s a man called Valentin Magnan conducted several experiments in order to prove that absinthe was a dangerous product and should be banned in France. The first experiment was to put a guinea pig into a case with a saucer of alcohol, and another in a case with a saucer of wormwood oil. The guinea pig with the alcohol simply got drunk, but the guinea pig with the wormwood oil went into convulsions and died. He went on the study 250 “alcohol abusers” and noted that those who drank absinthe hallucinated and some even had seizures. Modern science has deemed the conclusions from this experiment to be questionable at best because of a lack of understanding of or accounting for diseases that may have caused the hallucinations or seizures.
It has been proven that thujone is lethal at high levels (45mg/kg) causing convulsions leading up to death, but there is no evidence of hallucinations as a symptom. You can find thujone in any number of other products, none of which claims hallucinogenic properties. Do they have as high of a concentration of thujone as absinthe? Absinthe actually doesn’t have a very high concentration of thujone to begin with. In fact, in the U.S. any food or beverage containing any Artemisia species must be thujone-free, which means by law it contains less than 10mg/kg of thujone. Pre-ban absinthe doesn’t contain much more. A 2008 study used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to survey the contents of 13 bottles of pre-ban absinthe and found that an average of 25.4mg/L of thujone was present.
It was hypothesized until recently that thujone was psychoactive in a similar way to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC – the psychoactive agent found in marijuana). However, recently it has been proven that THC stimulates the cannaboid neural receptor while thujone acts on the GABAα and 5-HT3 receptors, and though they cause some of the same symptoms, they are mostly different.
It is certain that wormwood does not cause hallucinations by itself, but who’s to say that wormwood combined with something else does? There isn’t enough evidence to say one way or another. All we know is that modern absinthe isn’t hallucinogenic.