A 2003 national survey of drug use showed that about 60% of Americans between 19 and 30 years of age had used an illegal drug and about 20% had used a prescription drug for non-medical reasons some time in their lives. The “Drug Involvement” criterion under the “Adjudicative Guidelines For Determining Eligibility for Access To Classified Information” affects the clearance eligibility of many applicants by making any illegal use of drugs a potentially disqualifying condition.

It also makes cultivation, manufacture, purchase, sale, distribution; and simple possession of illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia potentially disqualifying conditions.


The Adjudicative Guidelines state that drug abuse “. . . can raise questions about an individual’s reliability and trustworthiness, both because it may impair judgment and because it raises questions about a person’s ability or willingness to comply with laws, rules, and regulations.” Drug abuse also raises concerns about an individual’s susceptibility to blackmail and the possible presence of mental health issues. Drug use can cause financial problems, sometimes leading to other criminal activity to support a drug habit.

Like many other issues, the security concern related to past drug abuse focuses more on applicants’ demonstrated willingness and ability to abstain from future drug involvement than on their past conduct. Experimentation with drugs, particularly marijuana, is fairly common behavior during a person’s formative years. Such experimentation is usually benign and does not result in chronic or long-term use for most people.


When does drug abuse become a security concern? Under federal law (Section 3002 of 50 U.S.C. 435b) a current user of illegal drugs can not be granted a security clearance. Using illegal drugs a few months prior to submitting a clearance application form can be considered current use. Past drug abuse is evaluated based on:

  • Which drugs were used.
  • Frequency of drug use.
  • Recency of drug use.
  • Circumstances of drug use.
  • Effects of drug use (i.e. mental health, employment, finances, arrests).


Illegal drug involvement can be mitigated if it is shown that the applicant is no longer involved with drugs and it is highly probable that the applicant will not become involved with drugs in the future. Determining whether an applicant is likely to have future drug involvement is primarily based on the type, frequency, and recency of past drug involvement. The following is extracted from the Defense Personnel Security Research Center’s 2007 Adjudicative Desk Reference used by many government adjudicators:

The following examples of time periods [of abstinence] that might mitigate various types and frequencies of past drug use . . . are provided for consideration in the context of all the other information available about the person. They are not a formula to be applied mechanically in all cases.

At Least Six Months: The only drug use was experimental or occasional use of marijuana, and there are no aggravating circumstances.

At Least One Year: Marijuana was used frequently, or any other drug was used experimentally, and there are no aggravating circumstances.

At Least Two Years: Marijuana was used regularly, or any other drug was used occasionally, and there are no aggravating circumstances. There was no evidence of psychological or physical dependence at the time subject was using drugs, and subject has demonstrated a stable lifestyle with satisfactory employment record since then.

At Least Three Years: Any drug other than marijuana was used frequently or regularly, or marijuana was used regularly with signs of psychological dependence. There are no other aggravating circumstances. Subject has maintained a stable lifestyle, satisfactory employment record, and a completely clean record in all other issue areas during the past three years.

At Least Five Years: A minor involvement in drug trafficking for profit or failure to complete a drug treatment program. Subject has maintained a stable lifestyle, satisfactory employment record, and a completely clean record in all other issue areas during the past five years.

The Adjudicative Desk Reference uses the following definitions for levels of drug use:

Experimental Use: Initial use for a maximum of six times, or more intensive use for a maximum of one month.

Occasional Use: Once a month or less.

Frequent Use: Once a week or less, but more than once a month.

Regular or Habitual Use: More than once a week.

Aggravating factors that could require longer periods of abstinence to mitigate drug abuse include: drug use while holding a security clearance, solitary drug use, growing or making one’s own drugs, relapse after completion of a drug treatment program, and other misconduct related to illegal drugs.

Factors that support the minimum period of abstinence include: disassociation from drug-using associates, drug use occurred between late teens and late twenties, changing or avoiding the environment where drugs were used, successful completion of a drug treatment program with a favorable prognosis, and a signed “statement of intent” not to illegally use drugs in the future and agreeing to an automatic revocation of clearance for any violation.


In order to receive an interim security clearance, potentially disqualifying information disclosed by an applicant in the Questionnaire for National Security Positions (Standard Form 86—SF86) must be mitigated by other information included in the form. This is because interim clearance decisions are made before the security clearance investigation is completed. Some drug-related disqualifying conditions can be mitigated by merely listing the type, frequency, circumstances, and dates of drug use as required by the SF-86. Applicants are also permitted to include additional mitigating information in the “Continuation Space” at the end of the paper version of the SF-86 or in the “Comment Section” following appropriate question on the electronic (eApp) version. Including additional mitigating information, as well as a “statement of intent,” is often a determining factor in the granting of an interim clearance.


Copyright © 2009 Last Post Publishing. All rights reserved.

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William H. Henderson is a former Army Counterintelligence Agent and a retired federal clearance investigator. In 2007 he began helping clearance applicants from the pre-application stage through representation at hearings and appeals. Since 2012, he’s been the Principal Consultant at the Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS). His first two books on security clearances have been used at five universities and colleges. He recently published the 2nd Edition of Issue Mitigation Handbook. He’s contributed scores of articles to ClearanceJobs.com, and he’s been retained as an expert witness in several state and federal lawsuits.