RIP Rod Skager, a Pioneer in Harm Reduction Drug Education

    When my children entered adolescence in the 1980s and ‘90s, the War on Drugs was in full swing. “Just Say No” was the mantra of the day, with the ubiquitous Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) providing (mis)information to teenagers like mine, backed up with zero-tolerance policies for breaking the rules.

    As a worried parent, I wanted drug education for my children that would go beyond admonishment and contribute to their health and safety. My hopes soared when I met Professor Rod Skager, who passed away last week at the age of 88.

    Rod had all the accoutrements of a professional who could chip away at the abstinence-only-or-else mindset of the day while providing reality-based alternatives. A professor of education at UCLA, Rod co-directed the biennial Attorney General’s California Student Survey that provides prevalence data; completed research on prevention of substance use and problematic use among youth; and published and consulted extensively about effective drug education.

    Perhaps most important in his research, Rod really listened as students revealed their experiences with alcohol and other drugs, in an era when such openness was taboo. He dared to suggest, based on his interviews with college students, that for most, alcohol and other drug use, rather than inherently problematic, might simply be “fun.”

    Rod had the perfect persona to deliver the heretical, harm reduction messages he was advocating.

    In his 2013 booklet, Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline, Rod shared students’ stories and detailed a comprehensive, science-based approach that challenged conventional and, in his opinion, wrongheaded programs that had failed young people.

    Also in 2013, Rod published Youth and Drugs: What we Need to Know, based on common questions asked by concerned teachers, parents and young people themselves, on the Drug Policy Alliance website.

    With a professorial demeanor, smartly dressed and as straight-up as they come, Rod had the perfect persona to deliver the heretical, harm reduction messages he was advocating. He was comfortable with drug policy wonks, treatment providers, the PTA and drug users themselves.

    Drug education, along with drug policy, has evolved since Rod entered the scene more than 40 years ago. I thank Professor Skager for tirelessly doing the scholarly and practical work that has provided the foundation for emerging harm reduction drug education approaches.

    Rest in peace, my friend.



    Images including photograph of Prof. Skager via Beyond Zero Tolerance, published by the Drug Policy Alliance. DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Marsha is the founder of the Safety First Project at the Drug Policy Alliance, and director emerita of DPA’s San Francisco office. She received her doctorate in medical sociology from the University of California at San Francisco. From 1977 to 1995, she was the principal investigator on National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded studies of heroin addiction, methadone maintenance treatment, MDMA, cocaine, and drug use during pregnancy. She is the author of books including Women on Heroin.

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