Herbert L. May




Author: Harry J. ANSLINGER
Pages: 1 to 7
Creation Date: 1963/01/01

Herbert L. May

Harry J. ANSLINGER United States Representative on the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, former United States Commissioner of Narcotics.

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On 28 July 1962, Mr. Herbert L. May reached the age of 85. He decided that now was the time to retire from public life and, so to speak, to sit back and watch as a spectator the activities in which, during his long life, he had played such a keen and variegated part. During the thirty-fourth session of the Economic and Social Council, when the question of election to the Permanent Central Opium Board arose, various delegations paid tribute to his work in the field of international narcotics control, and a few weeks later the Secretary-General of the United Nations decided that such an occasion should not pass without being marked, in the name of the international community, by a fitting tribute; accordingly, he wrote to Mr. May, telling him how much his "devoted and outstanding public service" had been appreciated by all those concerned with the humanitarian endeavour he had been pursuing for so long - namely, the struggle against the evil of narcotic abuse. Mr. May began to be interested in that problem almost forty years ago and, from 1928, when he became a member of the Permanent Central Opium Board at the inception of that body, until the conference which met in 1961 in New York for the adoption of a single convention on narcotic drugs, he assisted in all the international efforts for solving the narcotics problem firstly as a keen student and active contributor, and later with the wisdom that only age can give, as "the grand old man" in the field. During the conference for the adoption of a single convention on narcotic drugs, Sir Harry Greenfield, President of the PCOB, expressed exactly the feelings of all those who knew Mr. May and were glad to have him present, saluting him as "our eminent and revered member [who] assisted with the international control of narcotics drugs for some thirty-three years, an experience which must be unparalleled".

All Mr. May's friends feel sure that he will still watch the progress made in the field, and hope that they may see him now and again, even if only as a visitor to the sessions of the bodies concerned with the international control of narcotics. But in the meantime it was thought fitting that a summary, however short and inadequate, of his life and work, intertwined for so many years with the progress of this humanitarian struggle, be made available to all those who know and admire him.


Herbert L. May was born in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1877 into a moderately well-to-do middle-class family. Such a background was, however, far from dull or prosaic, and it might be a surprise to some to learn that his father followed the gold rush to British Columbia and was the first postmaster of the town of Caribou Diggings, which was later to lose this rather earthy name and become Mayville, which it still is.

Young Herbert grew up as a healthy "regular boy" in the fairly rough atmosphere of Philadelphia at the turn of the century, apparently more interested in baseball than in studies. It seemed likely that he would become a business man like his father. He was sixteen when his father was hit, as were so many others, by the now forgotten "Black Friday", the catastrophic crash of 1893. Herbert, by then a keen student, won a scholarship to Cornell University and, on an impulse, he enrolled in the school of philosophy. He did not stay there long, however, soon switching to law. This was perhaps not only for practical reasons, but also because already he preferred not to think in abstract terms, but rather to reach for realistic goals in life. At eighteen, he discovered New York, and at the age of 20 received his LL.B. at the New York Law School. The competititve life of the city at that time meant that young lawyers had a tough time. Herbert May, however, succeeded, and in 1901 married. But he was not fated to follow the life of a lawyer: he was stricken with typhoid pneumonia, which left him in very precarious health. He had to give up his career, but, instead of going into a sad and resentful semi-retirement, he used this misfortune, which might well have crushed the spirit of a weaker man, to enlarge his knowledge and personality: he set out for the grand tour of Europe, where he learned to see things for himself and acquired the culture which was later to help him so much in his relationship with his colleagues. We are fortunate to have direct records from him of his life during that period made for the Oral History Research Office of Columbia University in 1951. In such an interview Herbert May recalls: "When I was in Europe for my health I had a great deal of time to read, observe and meditate. Although I did not follow up any useful activities such as the practice of European law, it seemed to me that these were the two most useful years of my life. I learned more, I think, about the art of living in that period than at any other." What he learned mostly was to know people. Since then he has travelled throughout the whole of Europe, knowing also something of North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, learning languages, mores and the way the human mind works.

Meanwhile, his father had started on a business venture in the drug trade, which was this time to succeed very well indeed: by 1928 the May building in Pittsburgh was the executive centre for a number of drugstores. When Herbert came back after two years abroad his health was restored; he was told, however, that it would be better for him to give up his law practice for less strenuous work. He therefore entered into partnership in the May business, taking charge of its legal aspect and also of the public relations. He was to stay in that partnership for eighteen years.

These eighteen years were not, however, spent in the ordinary way of business men, making money and spending it. Herbert May wanted to render service to his community. In 1917, when the United States entered the First World War, he was beyond service age, but he served as Deputy Food Administrator for Western Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh he served as President of the Merchants' Board, a director of the Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Tax Commission and of the City and County Planning Commission. There is something of interest to note here, and that is the fact that his first international study was made at the request of the National Playgrounds Association, with which he had been in contact through the City and County Planning Commission. He was asked to make a survey of organized recreation in Europe, which he did, with great thoroughness. At about the same time another turn of fate was going to change his subsequent life: in 1920 Herbert May went to the USSR to take a look at what was then in the United States a fairly unknown country. He took this trip with the President of the Foreign Policy Association, James G. MacDonald; whilst in Pittsburgh he had joined that association, to which he had much to offer in view of his knowledge of the European scene.

At the age of 45 he took a decision which certainly must have been very rare among American business men: he decided to retire and devote himself to other interests. In so doing, he made himself free for what was to be his future and main life's work. His contacts with the Foreign Policy Association led him to join its Opium Research Committee, where he worked especially with Professor Joseph P. Chamberlain and Mrs. Howell Moorhead: at that time the Association wanted somebody to study the international narcotics problem, especially because of the conference in Geneva in 1925. But it will now be useful to see the position at the time when the Opium Research Committee started the survey going.


The international concern with narcotic drugs had started in 1909, when delegates of 13 countries met in Shanghai to discuss the ramifications of the Chinese opium problem. Although drug addiction was widespread in other regions besides the Far East, it was there that the narcotics evil, in the form of opium smoking, had its centre of gravity. The initiative for organizing this "International Opium Commission" was mainly President Theodore Roosevelt's, whose government had recently prohibited the use of opium in the Philippines for other than medical purposes. The efforts of the Shanghai delegates led to the conclusion, three years later at The Hague, of the first international opium convention, which established narcotics control as an institution of international law. The gradual suppression of opium smoking was agreed upon; the use of manufactured narcotic drugs was limited to medical and legitimate purposes and their manufacture; and trade and use were made subject to a system of permits and recording. Thus a duty was imposed on governments to co-operate in the international campaign against the drug evil, even if no specific machinery was created for the purpose.

After World War I, the control of narcotic drugs was made the concern of the League of Nations, and under the terms of peace treaties all the parties thereto which had not already done so acceded to the Hague Convention. In 1920 the Advisory Committee of the League of Nations on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs was established. It acted as an international policy organ in the field of narcotics, advising the Council and the Assembly of the League, and acting as a focus of discussion of current problems of international narcotics control, thus helping to bring about improvements in defective national administrations by calling the attention of the governments concerned to the matter, and by alerting public opinion. In these years there was a considerable illicit traffic in manufactured narcotics, supplied to a large extent by diversions from legal factories. In 1924 two conferences met in Geneva, one to deal in particular with the problem of opium smoking in the Far East, which at the beginning of 1925 adopted an agreement aimed at the gradual suppression of opium smoking, and another one in which 41 states participated and which in February 1925 adopted what is known as the "Geneva Convention ". This treaty, built on the foundations laid in 1912, established a system of permits and records for transactions in narcotic drugs and of reporting to international authorities on the implementation of the narcotics treaties. An independent organ, the Permanent Central Opium Board, was set up to examine the periodical statistics which governments undertook to furnish on the production of agricultural raw materials for narcotic drugs and on the manufacture, import, export, consumption, stocks, and seizures from illegal imports and exports of narcotic drugs. However, the Convention was criticized because it failed to advance the abolition of the practice of opium smoking; this caused the Chinese delegation to withdraw from the conference. Also, because of the unsatisfactory attitude of the Conference towards the aim of limiting the production of opium to medical and scientific needs and towards the problem of opium smoking, the U.S. delegation withdrew in protest from the Conference. This is why the Foreign Policy Association wanted a survey aimed at clarifying the situation. By choosing Herbert May to make that study, this association certainly contributed a great deal to the subsequent development of international control: the survey took nearly a year, starting in England and proceeding to Geneva. After that, Herbert May spent months travelling through the Middle East and the Far East, finding out personally about the realities of opium smoking and eating and some of the least savoury aspects of the exploitation of the abuse of narcotics by individuals, and sometimes even by governments, to attain their own nefarious aims.

Herbert May returned to the United States in 1927; his report was published by the Foreign Policy Association, and created a great stir. The conclusions of the report were largely borne out by later developments, and so were the constructive suggestions for the limitation and control of opium production as basis for the abolition of opium smoking.

In 1928, the 1925 Convention came into force, and the question arose of the election to the newly created PCOB. The United States of America was not a member of the League and did not become a party to this convention. A group of public-spirited Americans who were anxious to have one of their countrymen on the Board therefore asked New Zealand to nominate Mr. May, and this was done. He was elected by the Council of the League and thus became a member of the first Board. After that time, every five years, both in the League and in the United Nations, Mr. May was re-elected, being a member of the Board from its beginning in 1928 until his retirement in 1962, and its President from 1946 to 1952.

The PCOB is composed of eight members who, by their technical competence, impartiality and disinterestedness command general confidence, the idea being that the members of the Board as a group should have thorough knowledge of the economic, social, administrative, fiscal, legal, medical and pharmaceutical problems of the control of narcotic drugs: each of the members is usually more qualified in some of these aspects than in others, but the body as a whole is supposed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field. Members are appointed for five years and should not hold any office putting them in a position of direct dependence on their governments. While in the early times of its existence the Board met three and even four times a year, it has since held, in general, only two annual meetings.

Herbert May plunged into the work with great zest. He was already quite familiar with the problems, and he rapidly became acquainted with some of the people who built great records for themselves in the field of international narcotics control: Stuart J. Fuller of the United States, Colonel C. H. L. Sharman of Canada, Sir Malcolm Delevingne of Great Britain, Sir John Camp- bell of India, Mr. Van Wettum of the Netherlands, Mr. Bourgois of France, in the Opium Advisory Committee; Mr. Leonard A. Lyall of Great Britain, Dr. Otto Anselmino of Germany and later Sir Atul Chatterjee of India, Professor Tiffeneau of France, Judge Heanssen of Norway, and many others, in the PCOB. Since that time I have been fortunate to count Mr. May among my very dear friends. Such men were all devoted to their duties and at the same time were animated by the creative spirit, which is so indispensable to achieve results in a field strewn with stumbling blocks. Whether as a spectator at the sessions of the Opium Advisory Committee or as actor in the PCOB, Mr. May shied away from the limelight and rather specialized in the spadework necessary for laying strong foundations. There was nothing very spectacular about the meetings of the Board, which were rather informal yet businesslike. But it was by such hard-working people that the system of control of the narcotics trade was gradually organized. This gradualness is one of the interesting features of narcotics control; ingrained human habits, ignorance, and vested interests had to be overcome, and no abstractly laid academic scheme could do so - only patience and practical wisdom.

Mr. May's wide experience in social and administrative affairs was particularly useful in that period. One example can be given of this combination of shrewdness and insight. There was a weakness, for instance, in the system of control established in 1925. Decisions of the Health Committee of the League to place an additional drug under international control took a long time to reach and were binding only on the governments which accepted them. It meant that stores of dangerous drugs not accounted for might have piled up before measures of protection could be taken, and Mr. May was able to see that years elapsed in the case of benzoyl morphine and other esters of morphine between the time they were put on the market and the moment it was recognized that they were useless for all but the illicit traffickers. He then proposed an original approach, the placing under control in advance of all substances which might, because of their chemical structure, be suspected of addictive liabilities. Therefore, as he put it, "the accused should not be acquitted unless proven innocent". This principle was the subject of long discussion in the conference which met in 1931 to try to establish a kind of planned narcotic-drugs economy on a world-wide scale. Fifty-seven states attended and, on 13 July, adopted what is known as the "Limitation Convention". This convention requires each government to furnish annual estimates of its needs of manufactured narcotic drugs for medical and scientific purposes. On the basis of these estimates, manufacturing and importing maxima for each country and territory are computed. Also international legislative machinery is provided by which new narcotic drugs belonging to certain chemical groups can be placed under international control with obligatory effects on all parties. Finally, the convention enlarged the scope of the information to be furnished by governments, requiring them to give relevant details on each important case of illicit traffic and also an annual report showing a comprehensive picture of the narcotics administration of the country concerned. These two types of report, together with estimates and statistics, and circulation of national laws and regulations, are still the basis for international work on problems of narcotics control. The ideas of Mr. May were brought forward in what was called the May proposal, the text of which 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 the decision to place a new drug under control.

In the same year, another meeting took place in Bangkok to deal with opium smoking. It was attended by most of the countries concerned with that question, and Herbert May was asked by the Board to go as an observer. This was the "Opium Smoking Conference". The resulting agreement unfortunately constituted only limited progress towards the suppression of this evil, further advances having to await the aftermath of World War II. It is typical of Herbert May's character that instead of going by the ordinary way, he decided to take the Trans-Siberian railway: he stocked up food in Berlin and for the two-week trip cooked his own food with the aid of a spirit lamp. This being September 1931, the Manchurian situation was not very stable, and on 18 September the "Mukden incident" took place, which started the Sino-Japanese dispute. Herbert May, recalling


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.

his passage in Manchuria, stated jocularly that if somebody asked him for inside information concerning the politics in such a place, he would advise him to read the New York Times.

During the period until the beginning of World War II, Herbert May lived mostly in Geneva, where his home was a kind of informal international centre, especially for visiting American diplomats, journalists and writers. Apart from his activity in the field of narcotics control, he could not refrain from extending a helping hand wherever he felt it was needed. From about 1930, he was a member of the Board of Directors of the Foreign Policy Association, and also served as Councillor to the High Commission for German Refugees, not to mention numerous activities helping friends with their articles or books.


In 1933 the 1931 Convention came into force, and therefore the new body established by that treaty - namely, the Drug Supervisory Body - had to be constituted. Its function was to examine the estimated needs of narcotic drugs established by the governments from year to year and to draw up an annual statement of the world's requirements of narcotic drugs. Mr. May was elected as a member and re-elected ever since until 1959. He was its chairman from 1948 to 1953, and again in 1958. During the whole period of his membership on the Board he attented meetings first of the Opium Advisory Committee and later of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs on behalf of the Board and the Drug Supervisory Body.

In the years before the war, it was found that many illicit traffickers were not effectively punished or were even able to escape prosecution on technical grounds, mainly because of conflicting principles of international criminal jurisdiction in different countries, or on account of the lack of direct co-operation amongst the national enforcement authorities. Therefore, in 1936 a conference was convened in Geneva to draw up an instrument which would remedy this situation. This conference was attended by forty-two states, and it adopted what is called the "1936 Convention", that requires severe penalties (prison terms), made narcotic offences extradition crimes, and provided for punishment of offences committed abroad. In addition, provisions were made for the better organization of direct international police co-operation. Thus the work started in 1909 began to take a fairly comprehensive form, and when the Opium Advisory Committee met for the last time in May 1940 for its 25th session, it could look upon results of which the international community could be proud: establishment of a legislative and administrative international system for narcotics control; limitation of the licit manufacture of drugs at the level of the medical and scientific needs of the world; establishment of a system of accounting for all the licit operations of production of, trade in, and consumption of narcotics; national and international control of national and international trade; co-ordination of the control system on the basis of the international treaties by international organs.


When the war broke out, the international residents of Geneva scattered to their own countries. Herbert May too came home, but he was not the man to leave his work in abeyance, and he endeavoured to and succeeded in continuing some sort of operation of the system of narcotics control during the dark years. On 29 September 1939, the PCOB informed governments that it had decided that its activity should be kept up, and in December the Supervisory Body stated the same thing. Since this could not be done from Switzerland, Mr. May, who acted as President of the Supervisory Body, and of course was still a member of the Board, transferred his activity to Washington, D.C., where he made the necessary arrangements for the maintenance of the basic operations of international narcotics control. With occasional trips to London in 1942 and 1945, he spent all the war years in Washington. It will be best perhaps to quote his own words in that respect:

"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. The purpose was to ensure that international narcotics control, which was a function of the League under its covenant, remained a function of the new organization under its charter.

Herbert May was a member of the Manley Hudson group which played an important part in the Dumbarton Oaks meetings. He also accepted later to become a member of the Carnegie Endowment Study Group for the international control of atomic energy. On this subject he wrote a paper entitled" Narcotic Drugs and Atomic Energy - Analogy of Control", which makes a striking comparison between the two problems, and in which he outlines one of his basic ideas, that of the necessity for universality not only in geographic scope, but also in encompassing the whole processes from raw materials through manufacture and use in the case of both narcotics and atomic energy.

The war, of course, wrought havoc with the existing system and on the men who were to carry it out, and at its first post-war meeting in 1945, the Board had to note with deep regret that three of its members had died directly or indirectly because of the war. Mr. May became Chairman of the Board and the Supervisory Body, and also represented the Board as observer at the sessions of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. And now the work began anew. The treaty system on which the pre-war international control was based contained a number of weaknesses. Several governments were not fully able to implement their international obligations because they were faced with a particularly difficult narcotics situation or because they could not establish an adequate national control machinery, and therefore the two main aims were the improvement of the existing treaty system and increased efficiency of national control wherever necessary. One of the first questions which had to be decided was what to do about the narcotic drugs belonging to other chemical groups than those to which the traditional manufactured drugs belonged, and which, being manufactured fully synthetically, are generally referred to as "synthetic" drugs. Under the pre-war treaties there was no possibility of placing them under full international control. Therefore a protocol was adopted in 1948 to remedy this situation; from then on it was possible to place under full international control, with binding effect upon parties, such new narcotic drugs, whether synthetic or not, as could not be placed under full control by the operation of the pre-war regime. More then fifty new drugs have thus been brought under control since then.

But apart from the great complexity of a system of control which had grown of necessity through periods of different concepts, scientific as well as political, one outstanding problem had to be dealt with: the treaties in force did not provide for effective control of the cultivation of the plants (opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant) grown for narcotic drugs. As a result, illicit traffickers could obtain drugs derived from opium and coca leaves from clandestine manufacturers who, in turn, were able to obtain the raw materials (opium, coca leaves) they needed for the illicit production of morphine, heroin or cocaine either from illicit cultivation or from diversion from licit cultivation. In order to deal with this traffic, it appeared necessary to extend effective national and international control to the actual cultivation of these plants. Therefore the idea was to conclude a treaty which would first do away with the complications existing in the old system, and second, take into account all the problems above outlined. This would be a single convention which would replace the existing treaties, close the gaps in the international narcotics regime by prohibiting - after a transitional period - the non-medical use of opium and cannabis and the chewing of the coca leaf where these practices still existed, and finally, simplify the international control machinery. This was the object of very exhaustive discussions, especially in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, in which Mr. May, as observer, took the place which his experience and wisdom warranted. In the meantime, and in view of the difficulties which could not but make very long the process of first drafting, then adopting, such a comprehensive instrument, another instrument was drafted - namely, the Protocol known as the Opium Protocol which was adopted in 1953, and provided for control of opium production by national monopolies and for limitation of the use of opium to medical and scientific purposes, after a transitional period of definite duration. It is expected that this protocol will enter into force shortly. Mr. May continued to make a constructive contribution to the work of the United Nations in codifying narcotics treaty law - i.e., in the attempt to elaborate a single convention on narcotic drugs. Mr. May first wrote for the Bulletin on Narcotics in 1950 a very important article entitled "The Evolution of the International Control of Narcotic Drugs", 3 a in which he analysed not only the results obtained, but also the weaknesses of the system, underlining the necessity for universality and also the hope which the working of such a system would give to those who believed that organized international co-operation could really be made to work. Then in 1955, he wrote another article for the Bulletin entitled "The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs; Comments and Possibilities". 4 In that article, he expounded his view with great originality and authority.

Finally in 1961 a plenipotentiary conference adopted a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which in its best provisions bears the impact of Mr. May's great wisdom and experience.



Bulletin on Narcotics, vol. II, No. 1, January 1950, pp. 1-12.


Bulletin on Narcotics, vol. VII, No. 1, Jan.-April 1955, pp. 1-14.

If it were suggested that all this complex legal and administrative system of international narcotics control could not have been built up without his contribution, Mr. May, in his modest way, would probably just laugh and retort that nobody is indispensable; and, of course, he would be right in the sense that such an effort was a collective endeavour and not the work of any one man. It should, however, be underlined that given the circumstances and the evolution of the world situation politically and economically, to build up the system of international control of narcotic drugs through a period which has probably seen more changes than many previous centuries, there was need for people with a gift not only of vision, but also of resourcefulness and resilience. The PCOB had sometimes to exercise criticism of governments, and it is well known that most individuals and a fortiori governments do not take kindly to such treatment. Mr. May had the ability to turn the most outspoken criticism into a tactful and moderate remonstrance, and as a result the Permanent Central Opium Board today enjoys the confidence of all States of all political shades.

The world is becoming more and more a place for specialists, and it is refreshing - indeed, invigorating - to find now and then people who have tried to encompass within their personality as many of the activities open to man as Mr. May did; for not only did he deal with words, as a lawyer, with figures as an administrator, and with the social side of men as a leader, but also he developed a facet of life which is all too often obscured by its more abstract aspects in our modern society. It is not generally known that not only was he something of a poet in his younger days, but he looked at the world as it stands before our eyes with the keen appreciation of the artist. For a number of years he has been a painter, and his canvases are of a truly surprising freshness, showing that he was able to shed the sophistication of knowledge and experience and still be, even at 60 or at 70 or later, like a child just opening his eyes on nature and beauty.

Herbert May says he has retired. None of the people who have known him will believe it; they will know in their hearts that be it poetry or painting or political events or the control of narcotics, he will still be as interested in things and people as he ever was. As he put it in his wry humour, he has only friends left - having outlived all his enemies. To be sure, all of them wish him many more happy years and hope in particular that the people who carry on his work in international narcotics control will be able to call upon him for advice for a long time to come.



Thanks are hereby expressed to Mrs. Harriet Eager Davis for kindly permitting her biography of Mr. Herbert L. May, privately printed in 1962, to be used extensively as reference material for the present article.