Amara McLaughlin-Harris: The Legal History of Psychoactive Drugs


            The rapid growth of the pharmaceutical industry during the second half of the 19th century has had a substantial impact on the development of the different medical disciplines. This became especially true of psychiatry with the introduction of psychoactive drugs capable of affecting behavior.

            During the second halfof the 20th century the development of drugs with a differential effect on the pathology of mental processing saw the pharmaceutical industry playing an increasingly formative role in the development of psychiatry. 

            In the 21st century therapy with psychoactive drugs has become the primary form of treatment formental disorders and, accordingly, the pharmaceutical industry has become perhaps the single most important influence on psychiatric research, education and clinical practice.  

            The objective of this educational series is to provide information about the legislative and jurisprudential underpinnings of this development. The series will provide a foundation for understanding the effect of law on various drug research, production and distribution practices and will unfold through vignettes describing legislation and jurisprudence representing discrete episodes in legal history that have influenced these practices. The vignettes begin in the middle of the 19th century andprogress chronologically and comparatively through international jurisdictions and diverse areas of law.         

Therationale for starting in the mid-19th century is to provide a pre-history of law that would set the scene onto which psychoactive drugs would eventually emerge. This pre-history looks to the roots of existing practice by examining the framework of regulations and institutions into which psychoactive drugs were introduced. Consequently, while the psychiatric significance of vignettes concerning laws that came into force before the 1950s (prior to the introduction of psychoactive drugs) may not be immediately obvious,the implications of these early laws for psychiatry will becomeclear as the series progresses.

            The breadth of law to be addressed in this series will be limited only by the requirement that the statute or case in question has importance to the useof psychoactive drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. While company or corporate law, intellectual property law and drug regulation will be at the center of this series, many other areas of law converge upon the pharmaceutical industry and psychoactive drug treatment that may fall to be described.  As a result, it is foreseeable that these vignettes will discuss developments in such additional areas as professional regulation, public health law, mental health law and administrative law.

            Building on this foundation, this series offers an understanding of the nature of the effect that law has on psychoactive drug therapies and of the knowledge being produced in this area.


September 6, 2018