Security Clearances and Drug Use

Airman processing security clearance

Policy on Drug Use

Cleared personnel are held to a higher standard than other Americans who have not assumed the privileges and obligations of a security clearance. Persons who have used drugs in the past may be approved for access to classified information. In accepting a security clearance, however, government employees and contractors also accept an obligation to remain drug free in the future.

Unlike other personal problems, any confirmed use of an illegal drug is automatically a basis for appropriate administrative action, including mandatory counseling or treatment. Presidential Executive Order 12564 dated September 15, 1986, established the U.S. Government as a drug-free workplace. It declares that "persons who use illegal drugs are not suitable for Federal employment. . . . The use of illegal drugs, on or off duty, by Federal employees is inconsistent not only with the law-abiding behavior expected of all citizens, but also with the special trust placed in such employees as servants of the public."

Related: Search for Security Clearance jobs.

Similarly, current use of an illegal drug, while on or off duty, by a contractor with access to classified U.S. Government information is incompatible with the terms of the contractor's security clearance.

Use, Abuse, and Dependence

When categorizing extent of drug involvement, medical personnel use three terms: drug use, abuse, and dependence. This medical usage differs substantially from the way the terms use and abuse are used by the U.S. Government. For the government, any use at all of an illegal drug or misuse of a legal drug is drug abuse.

Medical personnel generally define the terms as follows:

Use: Any taking in of a psychoactive substance. The term simple use is sometimes used to distinguish experimentation or occasional recreational use that does not reach the point of abuse or dependence. Note: The distinction between use and abuse is not meant to imply that simple use is benign or that there is any level of drug involvement that is not potentially dangerous.

Abuse: Use becomes abuse when it continues despite persistent or recurrent social, occupational, psychological or physical problems caused by or made worse by this use. Use before driving a car or engaging in other activities that are dangerous when under the influence of a psychoactive substance also qualifies as abuse. The transition from use to abuse is often gradual, and there is no clear threshold for defining the point at which use becomes abuse. Frequency and quantity of use are important considerations, as is the extent to which drug use has become a regular feature of one's lifestyle.

Dependence: Habitual, compulsive use of a substance over a prolonged period of time. The substance may be taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended. Increased amounts of the substance may be needed to achieve the desired effect. There may have been unsuccessful efforts to cut down on the amount of use. A great deal of time may be spent in obtaining the substance or recovering from its effects. There may be a significant impact on one's work, home or social life, or mental or physical health.

Indicators of Severity

The circumstances of an individual's drug use provide indicators of the severity of a current problem or the likelihood that a past problem will recur in the future.

Age: Early initiation of drug use is one of the best predictors of future drug abuse and dependence. Individuals whose drug use started before high school (age 14 or younger) are more vulnerable to drug problems later in life than those who started using drugs in high school or college. Initiation of drug use between age 15 and 18 is common. Drug use usually peaks during the senior year in high school or in college (age 17 to 23). Continuation of peak usage after college (or age 23) indicates potential for future problems. Initial experimentation with drugs after college (or age 23) is unusual and suggests future problems.

Related: Does your resume pass the 6-second test? Get a FREE assessment.

Increased maturity and lifestyle changes that usually accompany employment, marriage, or the birth of children often lead to reduction or cessation of drug use. Continuation of the same social environment in which past drug use occurred suggests that use may continue.

Solitary Drug Use: Solitary drug use is more indicative of future drug problems than is social use. Use of drugs to relax prior to a social event is more indicative of future drug problems than use at social events.

Means of Acquiring Drugs: Purchase of drugs from a stranger may indicate as much about an individual's need for and dependence upon drugs as growing one's own. Buying drugs from a friend is more predictive of future problems than being given drugs by a friend. Few drug users admit to buying or selling drugs; almost everyone says they share or split. Asking what was given or shared in return for the drug may help distinguish a purchase in kind from a true gift.

Motivation for Drug Use: If drugs are used to reduce stress or build self-esteem, this suggests underlying psychological problems that may persist and cause continued drug use or problems with other addictions. Rebelliousness as a motivation for past drug use does not necessarily predict future drug use, but it may indicate other antisocial behavior. Among the various possible motivations for drug use, peer pressure and a desire to be sociable are the least suggestive of future drug problems.

Use of Multiple Drugs: Use of more than one drug at a time, such as both marijuana and cocaine, suggests that drug use is well advanced and may stem from underlying psychological problems.

Behavior While Under the Influence of Drugs: If drug use is associated with traffic violations, pranks, shoplifting, fights, etc., it may be part of a larger pattern of antisocial behavior that is itself a security concern.


Statistics on prevalence of drug use indicate that some experimentation with drugs, especially marijuana, cannot be considered abnormal behavior among younger Americans at this time. In 1996, 50.8% of high school seniors had used some illegal drug at some time during their life, 40.2% during the previous year, and 24.6% during the previous month.

Security Concerns

Much evidence indicates that drug use or abuse is associated with degraded employee performance, greater absenteeism, more workplace accidents, increased health care costs, loss of trained personnel, and theft. Drug use or abuse also raises a number of specific security concerns.

  • Use of an illegal drug indicates an unwillingness or inability to abide by the law. Cleared employees must respect regulations whether they agree with them or not. If they do not respect the rules on use of psychoactive substances, they may not respect the rules for protection of classified information. This was the reasoning used by U.S. Army Sgt. Roderick Ramsey to recruit co-workers to spy for Hungary during the Cold War. Drug use was the principal weakness he looked for in selecting co-workers to recruit as spies.
  • Users of illegal drugs may be susceptible to blackmail, especially if exposure of drug use could cost them their job. Police and security services actively monitor drug distribution networks. Procurement of illegal drugs while traveling abroad or carrying drugs across national boundaries risks attracting the attention of foreign intelligence services or other individuals who may seek to exploit this vulnerability.
  • The more dangerous the drug, the more the drug use indicates about propensity for irresponsible or high risk behavior, rebellion against social norms, alienation, or emotional maladjustment, all of which may be security concerns. These characteristics cast doubt upon an individual's judgment and ability to protect classified information even when not under the influence of drugs.
  • Drug abuse or dependence often indicates the presence of broad emotional or personality problems of security concern. It may also cause financial problems, leading to criminal activity to finance a drug habit.

Related: For the latest veteran jobs postings around the country, visit the Job Search section.

The Next Step: Find the Right Veteran Job

Whether you want to polish up your resume, find veteran job fairs in your area, or connect with employers looking to hire veterans, can help. Sign up for a free membership to have job postings, guides and advice, and more delivered directly to your inbox.

Show Full Article

Most Recent Security Clearance Job Posts

View More