Questions – and answers – to common concerns about alcohol and substance use by security clearance holders and applicants.

QIf I only occasionally smoked pot in college, should I still answer, “yes” to the question of illicit drug use on the SF-86? Everyone was doing it, and I’m pretty sure the government only cares about drug addicts…

A. If your last use of any illegal drug – including marijuana – falls within the scope of your background investigation, you need to list the usage.  The primary reason is that if you are found to be lying, that will count against you more than any admission of use.  You could also be prosecuted for the false statement. Many of my clients would have easily obtained their security clearance if they had been honest with the government up-front and explained how their post-college maturation has impacted their outlook on future drug use.

QI had a problem several years ago with alcohol and decided to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  I’ve been sober ever since.  If I admit that I’m in AA will that count against me?

A: No.  Admission of a medical condition is not a per se disqualifier.  Alcoholism and Drug Addiction fall under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is recognized as a disease.  If you have addressed a problem with alcohol (or drugs), and have engaged yourself in a course of rigorous recovery, that will be viewed by security officials as information that mitigates the alcohol concerns.  Showing that you have proactively addressed a problem is far better than addressing a problem after it has been raised as a security concern.

QI’ve had two (2) DUI’s. I paid fines, went to the classes, and never drove drunk again. I still drink, but I’m careful.  Will this count against me?

A: Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) are serious offenses and are seen as defects in both impulse control (i.e. the excessive drinking) and judgment (i.e. the decision to drive).  While going to classes, paying fines and never drinking and driving again are all positives, the government will cast doubt as to your ability to safeguard classified information if you are still drinking – even if in moderation.  Complete and permanent abstinence from alcohol after a second alcohol-related event is always the safest choice. However, if you are willing to abstain from alcohol for an extended period of time (18-24 months or more) you may be able to overcome adverse assumptions about your continued drinking by showing that you can handle abstinence and have now learned to self-moderate your consumption.   Attending Alcoholics Anonymous is always a good idea to learn more about how to get and stay sober.  While it is not for everyone, having an open mind and listening can be a very valuable learning experience.

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Ms. Berlin is the owner of Compassionate Beginnings, LLC, a private integrated therapy practice in Leesburg, Virginia. Her work focuses primarily on national security cases – including the evaluation of security clearance holders, pilots (by DOT regulation), and others whose fitness for duty has been questioned by the government.