Under the law, the Social Security Administration (SSA) must evaluate whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a “contributing factor” to the claimant’s disability. In other words, if a claimant’s substance abuse or dependence either causes the disability or makes the other impairment(s) worse to the point of disability, then SSA will deny the claim. When a claimant has a substance use disorder, SSA first determines if the claimant is disabled. If the claimant is disabled, then SSA must decide whether the individual would be able to go back to work if he or she stopped using drugs or alcohol. If the evidence shows that the claimant would be able to work if he or she stopped drugs or alcohol, then SSA will issue a denial and no benefits will be paid. It is important to note that this issue does not apply to situations where the claimant is taking medication as prescribed by his or her doctor.

The most common situation in which this issue arises is when a claimant has a mental health impairment, such as depression, anxiety, mood disorder, or similar conditions that are often made worse by drugs or alcohol. In this situation, SSA has to determine if the claimant would still be unable to work due to the mental health impairment even if he or she stopped using drugs or alcohol. If the evidence shows that a claimant would be able to perform some work in the absence of drug or alcohol abuse, then the claim will be denied. Although this issue arises most commonly in mental health cases, drug or alcohol abuse can negatively affect cases with certain physical impairments as well.

Even in cases where drug or alcohol abuse is not a “contributing factor” to a claimant’s disability, the use of illegal substances or abuse of alcohol or medications can negatively affect the claimant’s credibility with the person making the decision in the case. This includes medical marijuana and cases where a claimant is self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Any drug or alcohol abuse, even if it doesn’t contribute directly to the disability, can cause the decision maker to see the case in a negative light. The best thing a claimant can do is stop abusing substances of any kind. A claimant with a substance abuse problem, should also consider getting into a treatment program in order to show SSA that he or she is making a good-faith effort to deal with the problem. In every case, the claimant has the burden of proving to SSA that drug or alcohol abuse is not the reason he or she is unable to work.

Anthony Craiker