Vice Squad
Friday, July 30, 2004
Absinthe in the Netherlands

The new bans (one actual, one intended) on the alcohol vaporizer caused Vice Squad to rhapsodize about the frequency with which vice-related bans are adopted. But vice laws swing both ways, and sometimes bans come to an end. In March, we noted that Switzerland was intending to end its 96-year old ban on the opaline alcohol beverage absinthe. Last week, Peaktalk passed along the story of how an Amsterdam Court ruling overturned the Dutch ban on absinthe, which dates "only" to 1909.

The court's rationale is that European Union regulations on absinthe have superseded the Dutch ban. And while I am glad to see the ban end, I do not like the fact that it is intra-EU free trade considerations that are paving the way for this liberalization, as well as making high-alcohol-taxes in Sweden and Finland untenable. Alcohol is not an ordinary commodity, and I am concerned that tying its regulation to standard liberal approaches to free trade (or free speech) threatens both the legality of alcohol and our commitments to free trade or free speech more generally. But that is a discussion for another time.

For now, just want to mention that I recently read The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History, by Phil Baker. It was a fun read, covering primarily fin de siecle Paris and London, with characters like Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde, and Paul Verlaine. The book opens (page 3) by explaining how the Swiss absinthe ban was motivated by the horrific 1905 murders of a pregnant woman and her two young daughters by her husband. The murderer was a "thoroughgoing alcoholic," who had an extraordinary amount to drink both the day before and day of the murders. His two absinthes were literally a drop in the bucket of his imbibing, but a petition to ban absinthe was drawn up in the wake of the murders, and eventually succeeded -- and it lasted for nearly 100 years.

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