If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone who tested positive on a random drug test claim they only used drugs once – right before their test – I’d be a rich man.

In most cases, the “one-time use” explanation simply strains credulity; you’d have to be one REALLY unlucky guy otherwise. Personnel security officials aren’t stupid, which is why, when I hear a client start to go down that road, I often interject with this response:

“Are you sure you’re telling me everything? Remember, whatever you tell me is protected by attorney-client privilege. I’m not judging you, but I am here to be your advocate. I can’t effectively represent you if I don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

More often than not, the truth then comes out, allowing us to identify real mitigating factors and plan a course of action for the client to pursue that may overcome the security concerns. Mitigation can include, among other actions, disassociation from the friends and places involved in the drug use; a signed statement of intent regarding future use; evaluation by a certified substance abuse professional; and/or a program of recovery (AA, NA, etc.).

But occasionally, clients insist on following the old adage of “that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.” When that happens, we do our best to put on an effective case for the client given the circumstances, knowing that the chances of success are slim.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Over the years, I have encountered a handful of people who are, indeed, truly just unlucky souls. My office dealt with one of those individuals recently – a longtime federal employee with no drug history who unknowingly consumed a marijuana brownie at a party the night before he was selected for a random drug test.

Fortunately, this individual had what many other clients don’t: corroborating evidence in the form of signed, sworn affidavits from people who attended the party, including the host, who confirmed that another attendee had brought marijuana brownies and our client was likely unaware of the “extra ingredient.” He got lucky, but only after nearly losing his 20-year career.

Ultimately, random drug tests are effective precisely because they are random. Anyone contemplating the “one-time use” defense to a dirty drug test should first do some serious introspection. If you can corroborate it, like in the above-referenced case, that’s one thing. But if you can’t, you may risk irreversible damage to your credibility that destroys an otherwise potentially winnable case.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/practice-areas/security-clearance/.