Herbert L. May


On 28 July 1957 Mr. Herbert L. May will reach the age ofeighty. Few men arrive at that stage of their life and are able to look back over the years and find them so full of useful deeds. To write the story of his work for the international control of narcotic drugs is to record many of the steps taken by the international community in that field during the last thirty years. After being one of the driving forces in this endeavour, he is now universally considered the "elder statesman ".


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Herbert L. May

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On 28 July 1957 Mr. Herbert L. May will reach the age ofeighty. Few men arrive at that stage of their life and are able to look back over the years and find them so full of useful deeds. To write the story of his work for the international control of narcotic drugs is to record many of the steps taken by the international community in that field during the last thirty years. After being one of the driving forces in this endeavour, he is now universally considered the "elder statesman ".

Born in 1877 of a moderately well-to-do family on the eastern sea-board of the United States, he seemed initially destined for a business career, but his fertile mind did not admit of such a course and when of college age he was divided between the obvious career open to him and his real vocation. After studying for some time in Philadelphia and Pittsburg, he moved to Cornell and then to Columbia University and at the age of twenty he received his degree of LL.B. in New York Law School. The following year he was admitted to the Bar in the City of New York.

For some the career of lawyer follows a simple course: they take cases, sometimes make money, sometimes achieve fame, and finally retire. Although he did not pursue the law as a career (he stopped practising law at the age of twenty-five), hardly a week of his life passed without his using his legal training.

A well-nigh fatal illness proved to be the stepping-stone to a truly varied career: Mr. May was stricken with typhoid-pneumonia, which left him in almost ruined health and forced him to seek a radical change in climate and habits. From an active and purposeful life he had to endure the inactivity of convalescence. He set out for the "grand tour" of Europe and for two years was a sort of Barnabooth: like the hero of Valéry Larbaud, he had nothing to do but go from place to place, and for most people such years would have been a succession of wordly pleasures. However, not only did he learn what he still considers the most important thing in life-the art of living-but he also acquired a vast culture, including (even if he is reluctant to admit it) becoming an accomplished linguist. He spoke German quite well, learned French and also enough Italian and Spanish to be able to step out of the "Grand Hotel circuit". This knowledge proved very useful in his international life.

For the everyday tourist, visiting a succession of museums and art galleries amounts to little. Only for the fortunate few for whom art is one of the elements of life does it mean anything. Herbert L. May visited most of the world's great art galleries, but far from being superficial, his appreciation-particularly of painting-went far deeper, and after long years of maturing he began to put on canvas his long accumulated experience. He was most interested in the realistic painting of the late nineteenth century, and after making a thorough study of the technique of the artists of that period he started working without formal schooling on what appealed most to him-landscapes, and most particularly the New York skyscrapers.

During that time also he tried his hand at writing, having been interested in journalism and having even been offered a position with a newspaper. Fortunately for him-as he is fond of recalling-he did not pursue this career long, and was content occasionally to write light verse for literary magazines such as the Philistine.

Returning from Europe in 1904, he had to start to make his way in the world and entered into business in Pittsburg with his father and two brothers. There he remained until 1922, except for short but often adventurous trips abroad: in 1905 we find him in Tangier during the Riff rebellion and in Istanbul in 1909 at the time of the revolution. But business as such did not satisfy him, and during that period he was not only travelling, but also very active in civic affairs. At various times he was director of the local Chamber of Commerce, president of the Merchants' Board, and member of the City Planning Commission, the County Planning Commission, the Flood Control Commission and the Committee on Taxation Study. During the first World War he was Assistant Food Administrator for Western Pennsylvania. For all these positions he had, of course, to devote himself to a great number of social questions; and he gained such experience in the Planning Commission, dealing with the needs for public parks and playgrounds, that he was asked by the National Recreational Association in 1925 to make a study of the countries of western Europe on tendencies in organized recreation. This report was later published.

His interest in the outside world was growing, however, and he seriously considered entering the foreign service. In 1922 he moved from Pittsburg to New York, where he made his home and interested himself in the work of the Foreign Policy Association. This independent organization was endeavouring to give the American public objective information on American foreign policy. He became particularly interested in the Association's Opium Research Committee, where he worked with Professor Joseph P. Chamberlain and Mrs. Howell Moorhead.

The international control of narcotics was at that time still somewhat in its infancy. The International Opium Conference of 1911-1912 had adopted the Hague Convention of 1912. This convention formulated basic principles for the international control of narcotic drugs which have retained their validity to the present day.

After World War I the control of narcotic drugs was made the concern of the international organization which was intended to represent the whole of mankind-the League of Nations. Although Article 23 (c) of the Covenant specifically entrusted the League with only general supervision over the execution of agreements dealing with narcotics, the world organization, despite initial opposition, did not limit its activities in the field of narcotic drugs to the implementation of existing treaty provisions. The peace treaties ending World War I contained a provision according to which their ratification, in the case of Powers which had not yet ratified the Hague Convention, was "deemed in all respects equivalent to the ratification of that convention". That instrument thus became one of the most widely ratified treaties in the social field.

A few years later, in 1925, there was signed the Geneva Convention, which improved upon the rules of the Hague Convention concerning the control of narcotics. It introduced a system of licensing and recording all transactions in narcotic drugs. It required governments to furnish detailed statistical information on narcotic drugs, and established the Permanent Central Opium Board, to watch continuously over the course of the international trade in narcotics.

The illicit traffic in manufactured narcotics was then to a large extent supplied by diversion from legal factories.

The Board was required by the 1925 Convention to make an annual report-originally to the Council of the League of Nations; now to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. This report is also communicated to governments and is published. The Board has also the right to call the attention of governments and of the Council to an unsatisfactory drug situation in any country or territory. The Board has used the means of publicity at its disposal to enlist, if necessary, the assistance of public opinion in urging upon governments the need to improve their narcotics administration. It has largely been due to Mr, May's wise counsel that the Board's constructive criticism was tactful and moderate where possible and outspoken where necessary.

Criticizing sovereign governments and rallying public opinion for the purpose is a matter of the utmost delicacy and may involve an international body in many difficulties. The Board, however, has succeeded in maintaining the complete confidence of the international society of States for more than a quarter of a century, during which time a considerable number of governments have been the subject of its criticism. The Board's impartiality and integrity have never been questioned. In co-operation with the Opium Advisory Committee of the League and later with the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the Board has been instrumental in improving narcotics control to such an extent that in general the diversion of manufactured narcotics from the legal trade to the illicit traffic at present represents no serious problem, at least on the manufacturing level. In all this the Board was never compelled to use its ultimate weapon-namely, to recommend the imposition of a narcotics embargo on a country in which excessive quantities of narcotic drugs have accumulated or which is in danger of becoming a centre of illicit traffic.

When the two conferences on narcotic drugs were concluded in 1925, a number of controversial questions were left unanswered. The Foreign Policy Association invited Herbert May to make a study of the problems, particularly opium smoking, in the Far East. He prepared himself for this important task by studying in Washington, London, Paris and Geneva and by extensively perusing the literature on the subject. He then spent four months visiting India, Java, Sumatra, Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines, China and Japan (he was prevented by floods from visiting Siam).

Upon his return in 1927 he wrote a report which proved to be of great importance for the subsequent discussions of the Opium Advisory Committee of the League of Nations. In the foreword to this report, which was published in March 1927 by the Opium Research Committee of the Foreign Policy Association, the Executive Board of that Organization stated that the report had been "made by an observer in whose honesty of purpose and care in observation it had absolute confidence". In this report, he made constructive suggestions for the limitation and control of opium production as premisses for the abolition of opium smoking. He proved eloquently the need for the immediate establishment of government opium monopolies as a transitional measure and for the final prohibition of opium smoking in the not too distant future. This report is very interesting, and its conclusions were largely borne out by later developments. In 1928 he was invited to discuss the report before the Opium Advisory Committee.

Shorty after this, the 1925 Convention came into force and Mr. May was elected a member of the Permanent Central Opium Board on the nomination of the representative of New Zealand, and "thereby hangs a tale". In those days the United States of America, not being a Member of the League, did not participate in the election by the Council of the members of the Board although it was expressly authorized by the 1925 Convention to do so. Some people in the United States, however, anxious to see on the Board an American familiar with the subject of international narcotics control, asked New Zealand to nominate Mr. May and New Zealand did so. Since that time, every five years the United States has taken part in the election both in the League and in the United Nations, and each time Mr. May has been re-elected on the nomination of the United States, and usually of some other countries as well. He has been a member of the Board from its beginning in 1928 and its president from 1946 to 1952; he is the only person who remains of those who started the work of the Board in 1928.

Already quite familiar with the problems, he devoted from the outset a great amount of time and energy to the work on which he was now engaged. He attended as a "spectator", as he modestly calls it, most of the Opium Advisory Committee meetings from 1926 to the last one in 1940, and likes to recall these halcyon days of that body, which counted amongst its members such outstanding personalities as Stuart J. Fuller of the United States of America, Sir Malcolm Delevigne of Great Britain, Sir John Campbell of India, Mr. Van Wettum of the Netherlands and Mr. Bourgois of France. It would, however, be erroneous to assume that he was only looking on. His expert knowledge and advice were greatly appreciated by the members of the Committee.

The work at the meetings of the Permanent Central Opium Board was perhaps of a less spectacular character, but, especially in the years of organization, it was sound spade-work and laid a strong foundation which proved very necessary in the dark years to come. The meetings were rather informal. The eight members sat around a table and talked as do members of an industrial board discussing day-to-day business. There were no minutes, only decisions, and no formal votes were taken.

Amongst the people who built up a reputation for hard work and practical achievements Mr. May remembers in particular Leonard A. Lyall, who had spent most of his life in China, where, before returning to Great Britain, he had been head of the Chinese Maritime Customs; Dr. Otto Anselmino, ex-Director of Health of Germany, who knew "everything" about narcotics (he published an ABC of Narcotic Drugs which is still very useful); later, Sir Atul Chatterjee (India), Professor Tiffeneau (France) and Judge Hanssen (Norway).

The sytem of control of the narcotics trade was gradually being organized. This gradualness is one of the most striking features of narcotics control, taking into consideration as it must all kinds of obstacles such as ingrained human habits, ignorance, administrative difficulties and strong vested interest without ceasing continuously to attack them. One of the merits of the pioneers of narcotics control was the fact that they formulated rules of control which were generally found to be necessary and practical, with the result that the international narcotics regime has been practically universally accepted. Mr. May's wide experience in social and administrative affairs was particularly useful in this period which was so important for the development of the present system of narcotic's control. Under the 1925 Convention the system of estimates which governments were required to furnish was limited and not legally binding. The 1931 Convention remedied this situation. But there was another important weakness in the system of control as it was established in 1925. Decisions of the Health Committee of the League to place an additional drug under international narcotics control were not only time-consuming, but also binding only on such governments as expressly accepted them. But speed in extending international control to a new drug is essential; otherwise addiction to it may be established and additional stores of dangerous drugs not accounted for may be piled up before the proper measures of protection can be taken. Mr. May was able to prove by studying the dates when benzoylmorphine and other esters of morphine came upon the market that it was years before their uselessness for anything but the illicit traffic was recognized. He therefore proposed an original approach to this problem: he declared that it was not sufficient to wait for the international control of a new drug until it had been proved to be dangerous: it was necessary to place under control in advance all substances which, because of their chemical structure, might be suspected of addictive liabilities, and to free them only after they turned out to be harmless. He stated that international narcotics control should not apply to drugs the rules of criminal law relating to the conviction of persons. On the contrary, in this field the "accused should not be acquitted unless he is proven innocent ". Accordingly, he brought forward what is still known as the "May Proposal ", which was intended to strengthen the international legislative procedures for placing new drugs under control. The text of the proposal is as follows:

Notwithstanding anything contained in Article 10[1] of the Second Geneva Convention, the provisions of that Convention shall apply to all alkaloids of opium and coca leaves and their derivatives, and all derivatives of all substances mentioned in Article 4[2] of the said Convention, unless and until the Health Committee of the League of Nations, after having submitted the question for advice and report to the Permanent Committee of the Office international d'Hygiène publique in Paris, finds that any such alkaloid or derivative cannot give rise to the drug habit, and unless and until the Health Committee communicates this finding to the Council of the League of Nations, and unless and until the Council communicates the finding to the Parties to this Agreement.

This proposal was finally embodied in article 11 of the Convention of 1931, applying a system of provisional prohibition of the manufacture of and trade in all new phenanthrene alkaloids of opium or ecgonine alkaloids of the coca leaf. This article also made legally binding upon parties, without their consent, the decision to place a new drug under control.

Almost as soon as the 1931 Conference ended, Herbert May had another international duty to perform. The Board sent him as an observer to the Opium Smoking Conference in Bangkok, which was held in November 1931.

In 1933, the 1931 Convention came into force, and Herbert May was elected a member of the Drug Supervisory Body established by this treaty; to this body he has been re-elected ever since, and was its chairman from 1948 to 1953. As a member of both the Permanent Central Opium Board and the Supervisory Body and as a man who attended the meetings of the Opium Advisory Committee of the League, he performed functions which would have taken the full energy of any other man, but even during that period he found time for other activities such as acting as Counsellor to the High Commission for German refugees from 1933 to 1935. When the Opium Advisory Committee met for the last time in May 1940 for its twenty-fifth session, it could look upon the achievements of international narcotics control during the previous two decades and be proud of the results it had achieved-establishment of a legislative and administrative international system; stabilization of the licit manufacture of drugs at the level of the medical and scientific needs of the world; establishment of a system of estimates and statistics which was the basis of international accounting for all the licit operations of production of, trade in and consumption of narcotics; control of national and international distribution; co-ordination of the control system on the basis of the international treaties by international organs. Finally, the preparatory work for an international convention aiming at the limitation of the production of raw opium was very much advanced.

It was clear, however, that war could destroy all these achievements, and on 29 September 1939 the Permanent Central Opium Board informed governments that it had decided that its activity should be kept up, as far as was practicable, even in the period of war. The Supervisory Body stated the same thing in December 1939, but it became more and more difficult for these two bodies to maintain close relationship with governments and it was necessary to create outside Switzerland centres where the work could be continued. In February 1941 Mr. May became acting president of the Supervisory Body and as a member also of the Permanent Central Opium Board he transferred his activity to Washington, D.C. He made there the necessary arrangements for the maintenance of the basic operations of international narcotics control. He spent all the war years in Washington, with occasional trips to London in 1942 and 1945. Mr. May has conveyed in moving, albeit very simple words, the feeling of that period: "When the war broke out in 1939, the Board was in session, but when some members hurriedly left, it adjourned for lack of a quorum. In the spring of 1940, when Switzerland was threatened by the possibility of invasion, the Board was again in session in Geneva and again adjourned for the same reason, not, however, before authorizing me to set up an office in the USA and to continue to work from there. I persuaded the State Department to allow me to operate from Washington and succeeded after a considerable effort with the Spanish authorities in getting visas for the staff to pass through Spain on their way to the United States of America, via Lisbon. The Washington office was also to serve the Supervisory Body. There being no League of Nations funds available to set up the office, two American foundations donated the necessary money. Much to their surprise, I imagine, they were paid back a considerable part of their funds when the offices were moved back to Geneva after the war."

At the end of the war a number of persons interested in the international control of narcotics, being concerned that there should be no break in the continuity of control, however incomplete, requested Mr. May to go to the San Francisco Conference in 1945; the purpose was accomplished and the United Nations accepted the obligations formerly assumed by the League of Nations. During the war years a number of the occupied countries and even some of the belligerents had continued to send their drug statistics to the Board.

At its first post-war meeting in 1945, the Board had to note with deep regret that it had lost three of its members directly or indirectly because of the war: Judge Hanssen, Mr. Dragan Milicevic and Professor Tiffeneau, but the work had to go on and Mr. May became chairman of the Board and the Supervisory Body. He has also represented the Permanent Central Opium Board as observer at all the sessions of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and at many sessions of the Economic and Social Council. Control was quickly resumed: Mr. May made his contribution to practically all important measures of the post-war period intended to strengthen international narcotics control, such as the preparation of the Protocol of 1948 bringing under international control drugs outside the scope of the Convention of 1931, and he made various constructive proposals for the limitation of the production of opium which became the subject of the Protocol for Limiting and Regulating the Cultivation of the Poppy Plant, the Production of, International and Wholesale Trade in and Use of Opium. Finally, the Com mission started work on the draft Single Convention which has been undertaken to simplify and improve the existing international law and administrative machinery in the field. In that work again, the experience and wisdom of Mr. May proved invaluable. He wrote a very important article in the Bulletin on Narcotics on "The evolution of the international control of narcotic drugs", outlining the basic ideas which could guide the work of codification. He also gave valuable advice to the Division of Narcotic Drugs on this work. In 1955, he wrote a paper for the Bulletin on "The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs; Comments and Possibilities ". There he expressed his ideas with originality and boldness. He stated, for instance, that a courageous approach towards reorganization of the international control machinery would constitute an important factor: tentative suggestions towards this aim were made, such as concentration of the functions of an administrative and legislative nature in a political body composed of governments, meeting jointly with a few independent experts who would be charged separately with such functions as required an unpolitical approach; or, alternatively, concentration of the functions of an administrative and semi-judicial character in a body of experts, which would also assist in the preparation of legislation of the regulatory type, legislative functions being exercised by one of the general purpose organs of the United Nations. He also proposed the establishment of a system of international inspection permitting parties to the Single Convention to make reservations on this point, however, and a provision for regulatory powers to be exercised by an international control organ.




In 1943, Mr. May took part in the conferences devoted to the preparation by the Division of Intercourse and Education of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace of "a design for the charter of the general international organization". During these debates he succeeded in having placed in chapter 5 of this design the mention of the necessity for the continuance of the control over "narcotics and other dangerous drugs". The part thus taken in the elaboration of that international charter induced Mr. May to serve as a member of the legal sub-committee of the Committee on Atomic Energy of the Carnegie Foundation, which draw up a draft convention on the utilization and control of atomic energy.

While studying the problem of atomic energy, it occurred to Mr. May that what had succeeded so well for narcotics could also succeed as far as atomic armaments were concerned, and he wrote on that subject a short but very enlightening paper under the tide "Narcotic Drugs and Atomic Energy -Analogy of Controls". As this paper clearly puts it, the problem in the case of both narcotics and atomic energy is one of restricting the use of a commodity which has both beneficial and dangerous possibilities. In each case the control must be of the commodity itself from raw material to ultimate use, and of such a nature that legitimate use and supply thereof may be assured while diversion for illicit purposes may be guarded against. Furthermore, if control is to be effective it must be international in scope and universal in application. In both cases the control must operate on all of three stages-the production or mining, as the case may be, of the raw material; the processing or extraction of the essential substance; and the ultimate use.




One of the men who knew Herbert May best was fond of saying "He will live to be a hundred and his hundredth year will be the busiest of all"

In the words of the Chiraz poet "The life of man is not measured in years only, but in deeds and knowledge".

The life of Herbert May is a model of accomplishment and devotion to ideals. His countless friends wish for their own sakes and for the sake of his family that he enjoy health and unfailing activity for a long, long time to come.


i.e. the provision by operation of which new drugs are placed under international control in accordance with the provisions of the 1925 Convention.


This article lists the substances which fall under the more complete system of control.