Can You Get Disability Benefits if You Fail a Drug Test?
November 20, 2023 · 4 min read
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Failing a drug test will not disqualify you from getting disability benefits, but it can impact your application. If you have a medically determined substance abuse disorder, the SSA will examine the connection between your disability and drug or alcohol use.
If your condition otherwise meets the eligibility criteria, the SSA cannot legally deny you benefits because of alcohol or drug use. Learn more about how the SSA determines materiality for drug and alcohol use, and how to approach the disability application process if you use alcohol or drugs.
Do you need to pass a drug test to get disability benefits?
No, the Social Security Administration does not conduct drug testing as part of the application process for disability benefits. However, the SSA will examine your medical history, and bloodwork, urine tests, or kidney function tests might uncover past or current substance use. Eligibility for disability benefits is primarily based on an applicant’s condition and its impact on their ability to work, not the results of a drug test.
Does alcohol or drug use affect your disability application?
The impact of drug and alcohol use on a disability application depends on several factors.
Essentially, the SSA considers if your substance use is material to your disability, meaning it has a direct impact on your disability arising in the first place, or it contributes to the persistence of your condition.
For example, if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and smoke cigarettes against your doctor’s orders, the SSA will likely deny your disability claim. The use of cigarettes is material to the disability, meaning it likely caused the condition and the ongoing symptoms.
It’s important to note that the SSA is a federal agency, so federal laws apply here. An SSA agent or a judge might consider the use of a federally illegal drug, like marijuana, as a reflection of your character.
Can drug or alcohol use impact VA benefits?
Yes, drug or alcohol use can potentially impact Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. The VA benefits application does not require a drug test, but a claim exam can reveal drug or alcohol use. If a veteran’s drug or alcohol use worsens their condition, or if they do not comply with substance treatment orders, the SSA can deny or forfeit disability benefits.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges that veterans often develop addictions as a result of a service-related injury. It’s also important to note that participating in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA benefits.
Can drug or alcohol use impact state benefits?
On a state level, a lot hinges on your specific state’s regulations. More and more states have started to require drug testing for public benefits, like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
If you live in a state with a short-term disability program — California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, or Rhode Island — review the state law to see how drug or alcohol use might affect your case. In California, for example, you can get state disability insurance while enrolled in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation center, and in other states, you cannot.
How does the SSA determine materiality?
If there is medical evidence that an applicant has a substance use disorder, the SSA will determine whether the drug and alcohol addiction (DAA) is a contributing factor to the qualifying condition. The SSA might deny benefits if substance use is material to the condition.
The SSA follows a six-step process to assess materiality for drug and alcohol use:
First, the SSA will determine whether the applicant has a medically documented substance abuse disorder. If not, materiality is not generally a consideration in the application process.
Next, the SSA will assess the applicant’s disability without considering the effects of drug or alcohol use. The SSA will evaluate their ability to work, independent of drug and alcohol use.
The SSA will then determine whether the drug and alcohol use is the applicant’s only impairment. If it is, the DAA is considered material, and the SSA will likely deny benefits.
If the applicant has other impairments, the SSA will evaluate if those impairments would continue to be disabling while the applicant uses drugs or alcohol.
Next, the SSA will assess the connection between an applicant’s impairments and drug or alcohol use. The SSA might not consider the DAA to be material if the impairments would exist without substance use.
Lastly, the SSA will examine whether the applicant’s impairment would significantly improve if they stopped using alcohol or drugs. If so, the drug use is material to the condition.
What happens if you fail a drug test on disability?
To maintain disability benefits, the SSA will conduct continuing disability reviews (CDRs). These periodic reviews do not include a drug test, but an SSA employee will monitor your medical files. If your record shows you failed a drug test elsewhere, like at work, you could risk losing your benefits.
If law enforcement gets involved in your drug use, your benefits are even more jeopardized. Going to jail or prison could mean losing benefits.
Can you get SSDI or SSI for alcohol or drug addiction?
No, you cannot receive Social Security disability benefits if your primary impairment is drug addiction or alcoholism. In 1994, Congress enacted the Contract with America Advancement Act—Public Law (P.L.) 104-121, making drug and alcohol addiction ineligible for disability benefits. If you have a qualifying condition independent of your drug and alcohol use, you might be eligible for disability benefit
How to apply for disability if you use alcohol or drugs
Applying for disability benefits if you use alcohol or drugs can make the process more difficult. The most important thing is to be honest in your disability application — that’s the number one tip expert lawyers give when it comes to filling out the paperwork. Follow these tips when applying for benefits:
First and foremost, do your best to get off the substance. This is easier said than done, of course, but it can make all the difference. It’s much easier to argue your case if you are sober and actively seeking treatment. Current usage can give the SSA all the grounds they need to deny your case.
Complete the application thoroughly.
This advice applies to every applicant. It is essential to provide complete, detailed information. Check out this step-by-step guide to help you fill out the paperwork.
Review your medical records.
Review your medical records to see if drug or alcohol usage is listed. If it is, find a way to use your medical records to disprove that your drug or alcohol use caused your disability or worsened your symptoms.
Ideally, you want recent records of you not using the substance showing that your symptoms persist even without drug or alcohol use. Also, you want proof that your condition developed independent of the substance use.
Get a lawyer.
You probably get the picture by now: current or past substance use can make it even harder to get disability benefits. Fortunately, getting a lawyer in your corner can go a long way here. A lawyer can help handle your paperwork, gather medical records, and build a strong case for you.
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Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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