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Richmond Pearson Hobson and the War Against Heroin

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The following is a guest post by Joe Thorogood, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at University College London and a current Economic and Social Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.

Harry Anslinger was once America’s most prolific drug authority. From 1931-1963, Anslinger was head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and for my research on opium and the drug wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anslinger was going to be the primary focus of my fellowship at the Kluge Center. Or so I thought. Then I happened upon the name of an extraordinary character in Anslinger’s correspondence: Richmond Pearson Hobson.

Richmond Pearson Hobson was a fascinating jack-of-all-trades whose life was as bizarre as it was fascinating. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Hobson was the architect of a foiled plan to sabotage the Spanish fleet in the battle of Santiago Bay during the Spanish-American War. After being briefly imprisoned by the Spanish government, he was repatriated to the U.S. in June 1898 and awarded the Medal of Honor. Having earned such grand credentials, Hobson sought a grand cause to put his name behind. He partially found this in prohibition, and vigorously campaigned to expel the “demon drink” from the United States until his death in 1937. He also found another worthy fight: that against heroin.

The subject of his fight was well-timed. Following World War I and the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919, the architects of the drug control system in the U.S. decided on an objective of reducing the amount of drugs produced, traded and consumed to solely that which was needed for legitimate scientific and medical purposes. They hoped this would cause illicit drug use to dry up–after WWI, with legions of wounded soldiers returning, the nation needed an ample supply of painkillers but did not wish to have an over-saturation of them. In the U.S., crude opium importation was banned via the Narcotics Drug Import and Export Act of 1922 and the Heroin Act of 1924. The latter made heroin illegal, even for medicinal use.[1]

As an American war hero and a U.S. Representative from Alabama, Hobson was in a unique position to influence policy. The Library of Congress holds the Richmond Pearson Hobson papers and correspondence, as well as those of his associations. His most important was the World Narcotic Defence Association (WNDA), which formed in 1927. The WNDA dominated American information on narcotics in the 1920s and 1930s. Hobson’s salary seems to reflect his importance, as his $7,000 annual pay check was the WNDA’s single largest expenditure. (The next highest paid staff member received around $500 from 1934-1935.)[2]  Hobson used the WNDA to change how drugs were viewed in America. He declared the U.S. a victim of a new type of narco-geography, composed of producing and consuming nations. He shifted attention towards illicit narcotics as the new global threat, not the need to supply licit drugs.

The WNDA preached its message through “the Press, the Pulpit and the Radio”.[3] It served as the public mouthpiece of America’s quest for stringent international drug laws. Through its international arm, the Geneva Centre, the WNDA leveraged international League of Nations diplomats, allowing U.S. interests to permeate negotiations, despite not being a member. The 1931 Geneva Convention for Limiting the Manufacturing and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs was something of a product of the Geneva Centre mandate. It placed supply reduction at the center of drug diplomacy, and mandated each nation to set up a bureau for drug control. In a radio address celebrating the success of the implementation of the 1931 Convention, Hobson identified the next goal of narcotics legislation as “strict controls on the production of the raw materials out of which narcotic drugs can be made.”[4]

Hobson also pioneered the idea that the problems of drug trafficking and production could be morphed to fit within wider (geo) political interests. The WNDA threw its weight behind the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ assertions that Japan was using heroin in its invasion of Manchuria as a tool to weaken the resistant indigenous population. Coupling drug addiction with the idea of enslavement struck a powerful chord with the American public, and perhaps aided in galvanizing support for America’s entry into the Second World War. [5]

Since discovering Hobson, I’ve been attempting to assess his influence on early 20th century drug laws, both American and international. Hobson’s legacy is one of internationalizing narcotics as a global problem on the illicit supply of drugs, and portraying the fight against drugs as one of epic proportions, with the United States at the center. Yet it is an open question as to his effectiveness in the war on drugs during his lifetime and since. My remaining time at the Kluge Center will be spent attempting to learn more about this man whose name was unknown to me only a few months prior.


[1] For more see Edward Jay Epstein, “Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America.” Verso, 1990.

[2] Taken from minutes of the 8th Annual Meeting of the Members and the Board of Directors of the World Narcotic Defence Association, 1935 Box 63, File 1 of The Papers of Richmond P. Hobson, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Taken from an article manuscript submitted to New English Weekly entitled “New Era in Narcotic Crusades” penned by Rear Admiral Richmond Pearson Hobson, New York City, 1934 Box 63, File 3 of The Papers of Richmond P. Hobson, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] “Radio broadcast Celebration of Putting into Operation of Geneva Convention Limiting Manufacturing and Controlling Distribution of Narcotic Drugs,” page 16, July 3rd 1933, Box 63, File 11 of The Papers of Richmond P. Hobson, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[5] Speaker, S. (2001) “The Struggle of Mankind Against its Deadliest Foe”: Themes of Counter-Subversion in Anti-Narcotic Campaigns, 1920-1940, Journal of Social History 34.3 591-610.

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