The December holidays and New Year are a time when many let loose with family and friends, and even employers often embrace the spirit of the season with a holiday party or other sign of “good cheer.” The hype of the season, however, can lead to poor decisions that have greater consequences for clearance holders. Here are a few.

1. Marijuana Use

What does the holidays have to do with marijuana? If our practice is any indication, everything. We have heard from countless people who long ago quit using marijuana but used it over the holidays when they went home and saw their best friend from high school/brother-in-law/other influencer of choice.

Even though marijuana has been legalized under state law in many states, it is still an illegal controlled substance under federal law and, thus, off limits for clearance holders. When evaluating an applicant’s prior use, the government considers, in part, the recency of the last use. For those holding a clearance, marijuana use is strictly forbidden. Don’t reset your abstinence clock just for old time’s sake.

2. Overspending

While your best friend or sibling may rely on credit cards to get them through this season of expected generosity, it is a slippery slope for clearance holders. Holiday spending that results in debt that cannot be repaid, cannot be repaid timely, or impacts the ability to pay existing debt can land a clearance holder before an administrative judge to explain why their uncontrolled debt should not raise concerns regarding their reliability, trustworthiness, or ability to protect classified information. This is typically much more difficult when the reason for the debt is discretionary spending.

Being fiscally responsible during the holidays doesn’t make you a grinch—it helps ensure you are able to give again next year.

3. Foreign Travel without Reporting

Family in France? Hannukah in Hanoi? In most circumstances, clearance holders are required to report planned unofficial foreign travel and receive approval prior to travel. You can refresh your memory on reporting requirements here, but don’t forget to check agency-specific policies. If you aren’t sure, ask your FSO.

4. Driving Under the Influence

Whether it’s too much merriment at a holiday party or the in-laws driving you to drink, the line for when you hand over your keys may become blurred during the holidays. You wouldn’t be alone—DUIs are significantly higher during the December and January holidays than most other times of the year. But if the risk of harming yourself or someone else isn’t enough of a deterrent, consider this: clearance holders and applicants must disclose arrests on the SF-86 for seven years and must forever disclose charges related to alcohol and alcohol counseling or treatment ordered by a court. Clearance holders also must promptly self-report arrests, but with the takeover of continuous vetting, your agency may know about an arrest before you can say happy holidays.

5. Not Seeking Mental Health When Needed

While the holidays are merry for many, it is also a time when those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges may feel a greater weight. Clearance holders may have heard rumors that seeking mental health treatment can compromise their eligibility—this is not true. In fact, failing to seek mental health treatment when needed can raise concerns about a clearance holder’s ability to manage their mental health responsibly. Moreover, seeking and complying with mental health treatment are mitigating factors when circumstances otherwise raise concerns.

If you find yourself having a blue Christmas, don’t let your clearance hold you back from getting help. Still skeptical? Here is some reassuring information straight from the horse’s mouth.

Ultimately, having a security clearance doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the holidays. It just means you should maintain the same sound judgment you do the rest of the year—even if it feels like no one else does.


The above content is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. The handling and outcome of any legal matter depends on varying factors unique to each matter, and results cannot be predicted or guaranteed. Do not act upon information without seeking legal counsel. Unless specifically stated, an indication of a special area of practice, skill, or endorsement does not imply certification by a state bar or other certifying organization.

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Elisabeth Baker-Pham is an attorney at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman and Fitch (KCNF) and co-chair of KCNF’s security clearance practice. Baker-Pham advises applicants through the clearance process and represents federal employees and contractors whose clearances have been threatened or suspended, or whose suitability for federal employment has been challenged. Baker-Pham also contributed to the firm’s most recent edition of its long-running book, Security Clearance Law and Procedure. You can read more about KCNF’s security clearance practice and publications at