Strip Searches in Treatment Centres

When people call us looking for alcohol treatment and drug rehab programs, sometimes the topic of strip searches comes up. Not always, but it has been enough times that we believe talking about it more on our website will be helpful.

A little background on strip searches in Canada… 

Strip searches are generally only done by law enforcement and in jails. Somewhere along the way though, some treatment centres began incorporating the practice of strip searches when admitting new clients. This was likely during a time when treatment centres didn’t operate all that differently from jails and also when the stigma of addiction saw individuals with alcohol and substance use disorders as criminals and people with low moral compasses (e.g. The United States’ War on Drugs Movement).

It is likely also a reflection of prohibitionist beliefs creeping into the treatment realm, as they often did in the early years of addiction treatment. The idea that we must keep alcohol/drugs away from the user in order for them to successfully be abstinent or in recovery is a long-standing one. It sees people who use drugs as lacking the self-control and discipline needed to be good persons. Prohibitionist beliefs are still pervasive in many treatments centres today. Especially those using a Minnesota Model or 12-step facilitation (TSF) model in some way or another (Note: Minnesota Model and TSF should not be confused with Alcoholics Anonymous).

For a more detailed history of how Canada and the United States have treated addiction, I recommend writings from our Program Director Geoff Thompson: 

  • Addiction Treatment History
  • Abstinent Approaches to Addiction
  • The Influence of North American Culture on AA’s Exclusivity
  • Myths of Addiction
  • Stigma of Addiction: How Perceptions of Alcohol or Drug Dependency Shape the View of Addiction in Canada
  • Strengths and Limitations of the Brain Disease Model of Addiction

At SCHC and GSWC, we do not use the Minnesota or TSF model (Check out our blog Why Meaning Therapy for more information on the model we use), and we definitely do not perform strip searches. Even for law enforcement, the laws around strip searches are quite clear AND quite strict. The greater the intrusion (e.g. frisk search < strip search < cavity search), the greater the justification is required as well as the greater the constitutional protection. Police officers must have reasonable grounds for a strip search. Even being pulled over for a DUI doesn’t appear to be enough justification for a strip search. A Canadian Prison is also accused of performing illegal strip searches on inmates hundreds of thousands of times over the last three decades.

It would seem then that treatment centres are unlikely to have enough or any reasonable grounds for strip searches on newly arriving clients (or even clients who’ve been in their care for some time) despite the higher likelihood and possibility of drugs and alcohol being present on a person coming to a facility for their problem drinking and/or drug use. 

For us, the other (and main) reason we do not conduct strip searches is our philosophy and values of the treatment process. The principles of our philosophy include: 

  1. Our clients are whole human beings
  2. Our clients are growth oriented
  3. Our clients are the authors of their own lives
  4. Our clients are not their pathologies

Our values are excellence, transparency, dignity, and connection

For more details about our philosophy and values, see our About Us page. 

Our principle that clients are not their pathologies (e.g. not their addictive behaviours – thus reinforcing the stigma of addiction) and our value for dignity means that we will not conduct a strip search just because someone has an addiction or uses alcohol or drugs. It doesn’t even sound right, does it? You who are reading this, have likely had an alcoholic drink or many at some point in your life, yes? Do you feel like you should be subject to a strip search? Probably not. You probably feel like it’s unjust even if you had been making some poor choices due to your drinking. And you certainly would probably not think it appropriate for a healthcare provider to conduct a strip search as part of their treatment in your health condition. As said in one court case regarding an unreasonable seizure, “there is no doubt that Canadians expect a treatment that recognizes a strong sense of modesty concerning bodily functions”.

Dignity for our clients means we never use punishments, put-downs, attacks, or dismissiveness towards them. And it certainly means we would never resort to demeaning or controlling activities such as strip searches. And, in line with our third principle, we believe in providing authorship to our clients rather than trying to control as most have shown to struggle with personal responsibility

With the nature of our flexible programming at SCHC and GSWC, clients coming to us are motivated, attending at their own will, eager to work with a team of professionals on their mental health issues and needs, and aware that they can leave at any time. With the belief that they want to be here, strip searches seem neither warranted nor necessary. And, of course, legally they are not reasonable as we’ve discussed.  

It’s important to also mention the lack of therapeutic value to strip searches. If anything, strip searches can humiliate clients and thus be counter-therapeutic and threaten the counsellor-client relationship, which is the basis for our program’s effectiveness. According to our Program Director, Geoff Thompson, Ph.D. and his research, when “staff members see each client as an individual human being, rather than lump all clients under the label ‘addict,’ and treat them with dignity and respect, clients do better quitting the drug”. For similar reasons, we also discontinued random drug testing at SCHC in 2019. 

If you are searching for treatment and a centre mentions strip searches, we encourage you to inquire as to why as there is clearly little justification for it. 

If you are looking for men’s mental health treatment for yourself or a loved one, please get in touch with us. Even if we’re not the right fit, we’ll help you find the right centre for you. If you are searching for treatment for women, we also offer the same services for women at our Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic. Find out more at


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