Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases that afflict millions of Americans. Security clearance-holders, as a subset of the general populace, are not immune to the same problems. Fortunately, security clearance adjudications are supposed to be predictive, not punitive; it is entirely possible to obtain a security clearance despite a history of substance abuse.

What’s the Magic Timeline for Past Substance Abuse?

Security officials have wide discretion to approve or deny applications. However, there are a few categorical bars to obtaining a security clearance, including if the individual is a current drug user. There is no bright-line rule to establish what constitutes “current” as opposed to “historical”, but generally any use of any illegal drug (including marijuana) within the last 12 months will be considered current.

There is no similar categorical bar for individuals whose substance of choice is alcohol; however, the same rule of thumb applies. Less than 12 months of sobriety will generally preclude a favorable clearance adjudication as a matter of course. Applicants should keep in mind that 12 months is not a magic number that guarantees a favorable adjudication: it’s a bare minimum for consideration. Many cases – especially those involving failed stints in rehab – require more time sober in order to obtain the government’s blessing.

Sobriety Needs a Definition

Regardless, all applicants with a history of substance abuse that can be characterized as anything other than brief and experimental should expect that the government may wish to test the veracity of their claims of sobriety. This is particularly true for individuals appearing before the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) to challenge a preliminary decision to deny or revoke their security clearance. At DOHA and many other agencies, regular and committed attendance at a twelve-step accountability program like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is viewed as the gold standard for evidence of sobriety.

Applicants who are serious about obtaining or retaining their security clearance – in addition to actually getting or staying sober – should recognize that claims of quitting drugs or alcohol without help are going to be viewed with great skepticism, as will claims of quitting due to a spiritual awakening, life events (e.g., substance abuse-induced medical emergency), or similar circumstances that don’t involve a continued means of accountability.

One Way to Prove Substance Abuse is Actually in the Past

Because the secret sauce here isn’t exactly secret, some applicants say they’re attending AA, NA, or a similar program but use the term “attendance” rather loosely – as in “I ‘attend’ meetings because I attended one or two of them.” The government knows this, so they love to hit unsuspecting applicants with this question: “what’s the ____ step of your program?”

If you can’t answer the question, consider your credibility (and your security clearance) dead in the water. If you can, that’s a good start to proving your sobriety to the government’s satisfaction.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied.  Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. 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