According to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one out of every eight U.S. adults have abused drugs or alcohol at some point in their lives. In 2019 alone, the most recent year for which data is available, over 1.9 million Americans were admitted at rehab facilities – and that’s just the people who sought help. Of those, alcohol and heroin were the most commonly identified reasons for admission.
The national security community is not immune to this epidemic. A quick perusal of the security clearance denial and revocation cases posted online by the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals or the Energy Office of Hearings and Appeals demonstrates that drug and alcohol issues take a back seat only to financial problems (and sometimes foreign influence concerns) as the top reasons for unfavorable adjudication.
Many of these cases are for experimental or recreational substance abuse, but a substantial number involve the more serious issue of addiction. Fortunately, even addictions are mitigable with the right set of circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but experience shows some commonalities among the people who obtain or retain a security clearance despite a history of substance abuse. The problem is that many people are in denial that they have an addiction, don’t want to do the work necessary to prove their addiction is in remission, or start taking action too late to presently make a difference.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely already eliminated the first impediment by acknowledging that you are/were an addict. That’s a great start, but it won’t count for much unless you can prove your sobriety (and a low likelihood of relapse) to the government’s satisfaction. The first component to make such a showing is sufficient passage of time. There are few black-and-white issues in security clearance law, but this is one of them: any drug use (much less addiction) within the last year is likely to preclude the granting of a clearance under a federal law known as the Bond Amendment.
To be clear, the one-year minimum is just that – a minimum. Having 366 days of sobriety under your belt isn’t a guarantee of success. There is no similar federal law applicable to alcohol addiction, but I’ve found in my experience that applicants generally need the same minimum amount of time to show a sufficient passage of time since kicking an alcohol addiction.
In addition to meeting that initial threshold for passage of time, you’ll ideally also want to show that you’ve completed a rehab program (including any prescribed after-care); have been enrolled in and consistently attending an accountability program like AA or NA; have a series of negative PEth (for alcohol) or hair strand (for drugs) tests spaced at regular 30 or 60 day intervals over the course of the sobriety period; and have undertaken some demonstrable lifestyle changes like starting an exercise regimen and moving away from / cutting off contact with bad influences.
One mistake that I sometimes encounter is clearance holders or applicants who treat these mitigation steps like a check-list, going through the motions but not fully investing themselves in the process. That approach will be self-evident to security officials and the doctor or counselor you’ll ideally have testifying to security officials on your behalf. If you’re going to do this, you have to commit on a deep, personal level. That means, for example, obtaining a sponsor in your accountability program and working the steps as opposed to merely memorizing them. It means having people in your personal life who can attest to demonstrable changes in your lifestyle and outlook. And, it means making hard choices to prioritize your health and career, even when doing so is inconvenient or financially costly.
There is no guaranteed formula for getting or obtaining a security clearance after kicking an addiction, but there are plenty of prior applicants who have shown what not to do. If you’ve struggled with addiction, don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t ignore medical advice, and don’t forsake an all-of-the-above approach to mitigation in favor of going “all-in” on just one option. Security clearance adjudications are “whole person” assessments, and successful applicants take a whole-person approach to winning.
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.