I just saw a documentary on the Rolling Stones infamous free concert at Altamont, California, which took place in December 1969. In popular mythology, it was a drug-fueled orgy of violence that led to four deaths, in contrast to the peaceful concert earlier in the year at Woodstock. As with most myths, there’s a grain of truth and some exaggeration.

No one seems to have died of a drug overdose at Altamont, although some of the festival’s other problems were related to drugs (and beer.)  Two died in a hit and run traffic accident, one person drowned when on drugs, and another was stabbed when he approached the stage brandishing a gun. Presumably, most fans had a good time.  (BTW, there were also three births among the 300,000 fans at the concert.)

But that’s just an anecdote.  Were the late 1960s as bad as portrayed in the media? Here’s a graph showing annual drug overdose deaths in the US:

And even this graph is out of date.  By 2021, drug overdose deaths in American were running at an annual rate of over 100,000, which is more than ten times higher than during the late 1960s, even allowing for population growth.  Compared to today, drugs at the time of the Stone’s Altamont concert were a fairly minor problem in America.

So what went wrong?  There is some evidence that a combination of technological “progress” and misguided regulations created a sort of perfect storm, making drug use in America particularly dangerous.

During the 2000s, policymakers became increasing concerned with abuse of legal painkillers such as Oxycontin, which led to tighter restrictions on opioid prescriptions.  (The Supreme Court is currently considering the issue of when doctors can be prosecuted for inappropriate opioid prescriptions.)  As a result, addicts turned to illegal alternatives such as fentanyl.  Because the potency of illegal drugs is highly unpredictable, overdose deaths skyrocketed after the crackdown on legal opioids: 

Research shows that what’s driving the overdoses crisis today are illicit drugs contaminated with fentanyl — everything from MDMA, powder and crack cocaine, methamphetamine, counterfeit Xanax and other pills, and powder sold as heroin. That’s why harm reduction advocates say it’s so important for people who use unregulated drugs to have access to fentanyl test strips — an easy-to-use tool that can detect the opioid’s presence in drug samples. Originally manufactured to test for fentanyl in a person’s urine, they are largely distributed today for personal drug supply testing by harm reduction programs, local health departments, and some law enforcement agencies.

 Unfortunately, in many states even those testing kits are illegal:

But an overview by the nonprofit Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association (LAPPA) shows that fentanyl test strips remain illegal to possess and distribute in much of the U.S. . . . because they qualify as “drug paraphernalia.” Possession is typically a misdemeanor, but in some states including Florida and Tennessee distribution is treated as a felony. But there’s an effort underway to get these state laws changed, and it’s already racked up some wins in the South.

Policymakers view any attempt at harm reduction as something that will only encourage more use of illegal drugs.  Recall earlier opposition to providing clean needles to drug addicts as a way of reducing the transmission of AIDS.  

I don’t doubt that any attempt to make drugs less dangerous will encourage a bit more drug use at the margin, but when I look at the soaring death toll from illegal narcotics, I have to wonder if the benefits to the war on drugs is worth the cost.  

PS.  I previously saw this film about 40 years ago, and it felt different on a second viewing.  I can still recall that time period, but from the vantage point of 2022 it feels like ancient history.  It’s funny how one can feel nostalgic even for bad times.  I suppose nostalgia is never really about the past; it’s about being young.