A Tale of Two Green Fairies

Absinthe tasting in Berlin, Germany. One way of preparing absinthe for drinking is to suspend a sugar cube over a glass, soak the sugar in absinthe, and light it on fire. The sugar melts into the glass. (William Dotinga / CNS)

On a recent trip to Berlin – my third visit to the German capital in five years – Airbnb recommended an activity: An absinthe tasting experience guaranteed to bring me face-to-face with my green muse.

Having regretted not indulging in Amsterdam’s coffeehouse scene whilst visiting there not once but twice (sort of – I have control issues made a thousand times worse by being in a foreign city with rings of canals and psychotic bell-ringing bicyclists), I wasn’t going to let a chance to taste absinthe in a former cabaret in what later became East Berlin pass me by.

At the time I wasn’t aware I could have just popped in to the local BevMo for a bottle of the green fairy, but more on that in a moment.

As it turns out, most of what I thought I knew about absinthe was highly sensationalized by Sherlock Holmes and Hollywood. I did not hallucinate. I did not wander off into the winter night to find an opium den, only döner kebab. I did not die of a thujone overdose and I certainly did not return home to begin a new life of degeneracy.

Most importantly, I did not go blind. In fact, my eyes were opened by the experience.

Absinthe originated in Switzerland and by the 19th and early 20th centuries rose to great popularity in France, particularly among Parisian artistes. Teetotalers and social conservatives linked the drink to bohemian culture, which they had no use for, and spun it as a highly addictive psychoactive drug that caused drinkers to hallucinate and go on violent crime sprees.

Absinthe didn’t do the latter, of course. As to the former, I won’t say it didn’t contribute to alcoholism but the psychoactive properties in all likelihood came from poisons added by sneaky barkeeps or the users themselves.

A Swiss farmer who killed his family and then attempted suicide after an absinthe bender led to a voter-approved constitutional ban on the drink in 1908. Little was made of the farmer’s alcoholism or the fact he’d consumed vats of wine and brandy before reaching for the absinthe bottle that fateful night. Facts have never gotten in the way of a good prohibition movement.

“The end of the green fairy,” a Swiss poster criticizing the country’s prohibition on absinthe in 1910.

By World War I, much of Europe and the planet had banned absinthe. People with an aversion to the flavor of black licorice cheered, while enterprising Swiss folks fired up their bathtub stills – and probably killed far more people with their absinthe hooch than the real stuff ever did.

But the green fairy rose from the dead. A revival began in the 1990s, spurred by Britain’s imports from the Czech Republic and the formation of a single economic market in the fledgling European Union. Because absinthe was legal under EU law, member states had to legalize it via national law as well.

And in the United States? Yes, I can buy it at BevMo as of March 5, 2007 – now National Absinthe Day, because why not – when the 95-year ban was lifted. It must be thujone-free, the word “absinthe” can’t be in the brand name or stand alone on the label, and the packaging cannot “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects.”

In other words, the green fairy lives again in the United States; she just can’t be depicted on the label.

Last week, I saw an educational video about another vilified herbal green product with a long history of killing no one and causing few problems. It tells of the first chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, who – fearing there weren’t enough heroin and cocaine users in post-Prohibition America to keep him in the job – decided to make a big deal about cannabis.

Like those who blamed artists and entertainers for the ills of absinthe, Anslinger targeted music and musicians. But not just any music or musician: An unapologetic racist, Anslinger blamed black people and jazz, and he used the prejudices of Americans to stoke the flames of his fledgling war on drugs.

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” Anslinger once said. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

At the height of the Great Depression, when anti-Mexican sentiment ran high in the United States, Anslinger and his supporters urged press outlets to begin referring to cannabis by its Spanish name, marijuana – creating a link in the minds of readers between Mexicans who popularized its recreational use here and all the ills Anslinger and his ilk attributed to it.

After 32 years heading the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the damage Anslinger did particularly to communities of color was incalculable and lasts even today, nearly 60 years later. He pushed for the Boggs Act, the 1952 law that created minimum sentencing guidelines for simple possession. If not for his failing health, he no doubt would have stood behind Richard Nixon when Nixon made cannabis a Schedule I controlled substance on par with heroin, cocaine and LSD in 1970.

Since then, 10 reasonable states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use – and all but three states allow some form of it for medical purposes – but the feds haven’t budged an inch. Former U.S.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to go after users and the states that have legalized it with a renewed vigor (“good people do not use marijuana”), and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump invoked the ghost of Anslinger in 2015 when he said of immigrants from Mexico:

“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Spoken like a teetotaler with an aversion to (nonwhite) immigrants whose only vices are fast-food cheeseburgers, Twitter, women and bending the truth.

Whether the feds ever accept the relative harmlessness – and potential benefits – of cannabis remains to be seen. But if the other green fairy has taught us anything, bans and criminalization only drive things underground and make them hopelessly romantic if not flat-out sexy.

As I wandered toward the U-bahn station that frigid January night in Berlin, the taste of anise still thick on my tongue, I decided I enjoyed the experience and appreciated the history lesson. But how something so relatively benign became so vilified befuddled me – until I returned home and read a quip by British writer and bohemian absinthe lover Oscar Wilde:

“After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second glass you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

I guess some would rather see fiction through beer goggles than reality through green-colored glasses.

“L’Absinthe,” by Edgar Degas.
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