‘Harm reduction approaches do not exacerbate substance use but rather reduce the negative impacts’


The LINK asked Mr Upkar Singh Tatlay, Executive Director at Engaged Communities Canada Society, Public Health Researcher and Chief Technology Officer at Oxus Machine Works Ltd., about his response to decriminalization.
The Link: Can decriminalization lead to increase in number illicit drugs users?
Upkar Singh Tatlay: There is a misconception on the overall use of drugs which is often fueled by misinformation rather than scientific studies and research that clearly shows us that one of the origins of substance use for many people is due, in large part, to worsened mental health conditions brought on my trauma. In addition, it is important to note that mental health challenges/trauma are not the only reasons for using substances (eg. another reason could be coping with stressors) and mental health challenges are also not always rooted in trauma (e.g. physical health conditions can also contribute). 
Our research utilizes direct evidence from the communities we serve at our shelter site and outreach programming who detail how they first embarked on their substance use journey when they lacked any supports to deal with trauma. Removal of stigma (which this legislation aims to do) will assist saving lives of many people including those already using substances.
Decriminalization does not apply to those under 18 years of age and thus concerns of marginalization/exclusion of youth from this pilot are valid – this warrants a look into expanding related supports for youth, aside from treatment-based options, which youth are often excluded from.
Harm reduction approaches do not exacerbate substance use but rather reduce the negative impacts associated with this, including preventing injury and death. Abstinence-based approaches are not an effective solution for everyone. 
In addition, our focus and evaluation must be aimed at the effectiveness of the limits imposed by the new legislation and who truly benefits from decriminalization. Are those who are extremely vulnerable impacted by this or will it bring very little change in their lives? That is something we are now evaluating alongside peers and those in our shelters and collating for feedback for government.
LINK: Do you think BC is ready for this complex pilot program because Health Canada has put in place certain conditions?
Upkar Singh Tatlay: Our province was ready over a decade ago when we knew the crisis was taking lives. BC is not only ready for this but it is long overdue. It is a very small step and perhaps it will have negligible impact on the populations we work with and we will continue to see deaths but we know this is finally a first step towards a potential solution. Any perceived complexities are intentional safeguards that guarantee the well-being of those who continue to be harmed by the toxic drug supply while ensuring all Canadians are protected. The manner in which it is planned to roll out will allow for the study and observations of any shortcomings to ensure its overall effectiveness in the long term.