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Ask Atticus: Will Marijuana Use Impact My Disability Benefits?

Written by
Sarah Aitchison
Attorney
December 6, 2022  ·  1 min read

Dear Atticus,

I have diabetes and a herniated disc in my back that makes it very difficult for me to work in the construction job I have done for the last fifteen years. I live in a state where marijuana is legal and I use it to alleviate the pain from my back—I even have a medical prescription. I just got my first denial letter and I am worried that if I continue to appeal the marijuana use could hurt my application. Can my psychiatrist tell the SSA I’m using marijuana? Does the SSA drug test you? What do you think?

Sincerely,

Tried and Fried


Dear Tried and Fried,

You ask a great question and one that comes up fairly often among our clients! 

Unfortunately, the answer is a bit complicated. Because Social Security benefits are a federal program, and marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, your marijuana use may be relevant regardless of whether or not you are in a state where it’s legal. 

The Social Security Administration does have guidelines about substance use (regardless of whether the substance is illegal or legal). Generally, if your use does not contribute to or worsen your condition, the SSA shouldn’t consider it when evaluating your case for disability benefits. 

There are some common examples of where substance use is a definite problem for your case. For example, if you are suffering from alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver, the SSA will likely require you stop drinking alcohol prior to granting you benefits. Or, if you are a cigarette smoker and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it will be very difficult to get benefits unless you quit smoking. 

In theory, your marijuana use seems disconnected from your diabetes and herniated disc—so it shouldn’t impact your case. But in practice, it can make it hard to get benefits if you are using any (federally) illegal substance because the SSA or a judge may consider it a testament to your character.

To summarize: Marijuana use should not necessarily disqualify you from accessing disability benefits. But the only way to ensure it won’t impact your case is to stop using it. So, the safest bet is to stop using marijuana and consult your doctor for alternative treatments to help alleviate your pain. 

If you want more information about applying for benefits or what to do next in the process, check out this article for applying with diabetes and this article for information on what to do after you have received a denial.

Good luck!

Sincerely, 

Atticus

P.S. Getting straight answers about disability can be hard to find! At Atticus, we can provide free legal counsel and connect you with a lawyer to help you get the benefits you deserve, as quickly as possible. Get started here with our 2-minute intake quiz.

Triple your chances of getting approved. Get matched with a top disability lawyer today.

Sarah Aitchison

Attorney

Sarah is an attorney at Atticus Law, P.C. Prior to joining Atticus, she was a civil public defender in Brooklyn, NY and a business reporter in Seattle, WA. She is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Law.
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