Can Social Security Find Out About Drug Use When You Apply for Disability?

Be honest but careful in discussing your alcohol and drug use. Social Security doesn't drug test, but evidence may be in your medical records.

Reviewed by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, your current or past use of alcohol or drugs could affect your claim. Your social or infrequent use of alcohol probably doesn't meet the definition of alcohol abuse. And similarly, you might use marijuana moderately or infrequently, whether for medical purposes or not. It might even be permitted in your state. But the Social Security Administration (SSA) could consider even casual use of alcohol or drugs as a reason to deny your disability claim.

In this article, we'll cover Social Security's disability drug testing policy, how drug or alcohol use can affect your disability claim, and how to best handle questions about drinking or drug use.

How Alcohol and Drug Use Affect the Disability Decision

The problem with using alcohol or drugs when applying for disability is that Social Security can deny you benefits if they believe that your alcohol or drug use contributes to your impairment. In the Social Security disability process (which includes both SSDI and SSI disability), this is called "DAA materiality."

"DAA" stands for "drug addiction and alcoholism." And "materiality" refers to whether your drug or alcohol use is a contributing factor to your disabling medical condition. In other words, would you still meet Social Security's definition of disabled if you quit drinking or using drugs?

If drugs or alcohol are mentioned in your medical records, after making an initial disability decision, Social Security will make a "DAA determination" to see whether your use of drugs or alcohol is contributing to your disability. If the SSA finds that it is, your disability claim will be denied.

Does Social Security Disability Have You Take a Drug Test?

The SSA doesn't currently require disability applicants to take a drug test, but your claims examiner isn't likely to ignore the results of previous drug tests or anything else in your medical records that indicate prior drug or alcohol use. Remember, the SSA will have copies of all your medical records, including:

  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • kidney and liver function tests
  • psychological exams
  • hospital records, and
  • all your doctor's notes.

If there's any evidence of prior drug or alcohol use in your medical records, the disability claims examiner will know about it. And if the claims examiner learns that you're currently using drugs or alcohol, your claim could be denied.

How Claims Examiners View Alcohol and Drug Use

Evidence of current drug or alcohol abuse will likely have an impact on your claim. This is especially true if you have a mental or cognitive disorder or if substance abuse caused your impairment (like severe liver disease). And even fairly moderate alcohol or drug use could be said to contribute to conditions like:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • seizures
  • sleep apnea
  • insomnia, and
  • personality disturbances.

The decision about whether your drug or alcohol use is material to your case is a matter of the claims examiner's opinion. So, the SSA could use your occasional use of drugs or alcohol to deny you benefits, especially if your disability is based on one of the above conditions.

Keep in mind that the Social Security Administration denies more than two-thirds of all initial claims for disability and more than 80% of all first-level appeals (reconsideration appeals). So, it wouldn't be unusual for a disability examiner to use even a brief mention of drug or alcohol use in your medical records to deny your claim.

For example, short notes in a family doctor's records such as "patient admits to occasional alcohol use" or "patient consumed three beers the previous day" could be enough to cause your initial claim to be denied.

Even if the claims examiner doesn't view the mention of occasional alcohol use as damaging to your case, others involved in the disability claims process might. For instance, the examiner's supervisor or the examiner's unit psychologist or medical consultant might assume that your alcohol or cannabis use negatively affects your mental condition (such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety disorder).

How to Handle Questions About Your Alcohol or Drug Use

You want to be careful when mentioning substance use, simply to avoid giving the SSA an easy way to deny your claim. That said, you should be honest in filling out your application and answering doctors' questions.

Your credibility can have a big impact on the outcome of your disability claim, especially at the appeal hearing level. If your statements contradict medical evidence, for instance, you have advanced liver disease from alcohol abuse, but you deny having ever drunk alcohol, it would harm your chances of getting disability benefits.

What Happens If You Fail a Drug Test on Disability?

Just as the SSA doesn't require you to pass a drug test to get SSDI or SSI disability, there's no drug test required to keep your benefits once your claim has been approved. That doesn't mean the SSA won't look for signs of drug or alcohol abuse during the continuing disability reviews (CDRs) that you'll have every three to seven years. If the SSA finds that you're using drugs or alcohol and not following your doctor's treatment plan, you could lose your disability benefits.

And spending your disability benefits on drugs or alcohol can have other negative effects too. The SSA could appoint a representative payee who would receive your disability payments and manage the money for you. And since using federal benefits to buy drugs might be illegal, it's possible you could face criminal charges.

If you lose your benefits after a CDR, even if it's because of your use of drugs or alcohol, you can appeal the decision. And your benefits might not get cut off while you do. Learn more about collecting disability benefits during an appeal.

Updated July 22, 2022

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