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Why can legal drugs cause you to lose your security clearance?

On Behalf of | Jul 25, 2022 | Firm News

If you work for the federal government, there’s a good chance you may need to apply for and maintain a security clearance. There are millions of government employees and contractors who have some level of clearance. And, for many of these people, a threat to their clearance is a threat to their livelihoods and careers.

That serves as background for one frequent concern. Despite the fact marijuana is now legal for various types of use in all but 11 states, its use remains a concern for people with security clearances. Your legal use of marijuana can still put your security clearance at risk. But should it?

Lawmakers recognize the problem

According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, approximately 2.9 million employees and contractors held security clearances in 2019. Compare that figure to the estimate of 2.1 million civilian employees in the federal government. Right away, you see there are a lot of people with security clearances. The policies surrounding security clearances affect millions of lives.

It’s reasonable to expect a good number of these people live, or vacation, within the 19 states where recreational marijuana is legal. Even more likely live where medical marijuana is legal. Altogether, CNET reports that 38 states have legalized marijuana to some degree.

In other words, most U.S. citizens live in states where marijuana use is legal in one form or another. So, why should their use of a legal drug endanger their security clearances?

That’s one of the questions addressed by the 2023 Intelligence Authorization Act. Though many pundits doubt the legislation will clear all the hurdles in its way, it tackles the increasingly cumbersome problem presented by marijuana. If passed, it would ban the denial of security clearances based on marijuana consumption. It might also lower the barriers for those who already hold security clearances.

However, as ClearanceJobs noted in its coverage of the bill, the real breakthrough would likely come if the federal government decriminalized marijuana.

Does a history of use have to spell disaster?

Despite the introduction of the 2023 Intelligence Authorization Act, we’re a long way from the time when marijuana use stops being a concern for those with security clearance. That said, the fact its use can count against you does not mean it has to be a deal-breaker.

As the Government Executive noted in January, the legal use of marijuana isn’t necessarily a giant problem on its own. The concerns lie more with what the use could represent. The Government Executive identified four possible concerns:

  • Because there are still federal laws against marijuana use, the federal government may view users as rulebreakers. Agencies do not want to issue security clearances to people willing to break the law as that may indicate the willingness to take risks with classified information.
  • Drug use may raise questions about the decisions someone is likely to make while under the influence.
  • Agencies may believe that marijuana use is an indicator that you’re willing to participate in other irresponsible or high-risk behaviors.
  • Your use could lead to physical or psychological dependency that could compromise your judgment.

However, so long as your use is in the past, it may not disqualify you. You may be able to argue that your past use does not impede your ability to uphold security standards. It’s typically best to be forthright about security clearance issues, but you may still have options if your prior use comes to light and threatens your clearance.

Your best bet is to play by the rules

For now, the best way to protect your security clearance is simply to abstain from marijuana use. There’s no reason to break the rules and tempt fate.

However, if you’re seeking a new clearance or need to upgrade it, you may need to disclose past use. This will raise some flags, but it won’t necessarily block you from gaining the clearance you need.


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