Drugs & Alcohol: Poison for Your Body, Poison for Your Disability Case

Drug and alcohol abuse seem to be rampant in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have worsened the problem: alcohol consumption has dramatically increased, perhaps as a result of unemployment, fear and isolation.

The line between alcohol use and abuse can be a fine one.   If you have a pending social security disability claim and you are abusing alcohol and or drugs, you are not only poisoning your body;  you are poisoning your social security disability case.

Social security regulations provide that disability benefits will not be paid when someone is disabled because of drug and alcohol abuse.  Put another way: if drug and/or alcohol abuse is present, the claimant cannot be disabled if their disability would cease when the drug and alcohol abuse ceased.  The classic example of that of the chronic alcoholic with severe cirrhosis of the liver.  This person with end-stage liver failure may have hepatic encephalopathy, swelling of the abdomen (ascites), profound fatigue and bleeding from varices.  I am shocked how many I have seen in this condition that continue to drink.   Yet the alcohol abuse will not get in the way of securing disability benefits: the damage is done.  Ceasing alcohol abuse may prolong this person’s life, but they will never be able to work again.

The prohibition (maybe poor word choice?) in granting disability benefits to those disabled because of drug and alcohol abuse goes back to  the 1996 Contract with America Advancement Act.  Prior to this act  persons whose sole severe disabling condition was drug addiction or alcoholism were eligible to receive monthly cash  if they were unable to work because of their addictions BUT ONLY IF they were found unable to control their substance abuse.  I was handling social security disability cases back before the 1996 complete prohibition against disability benefits for drug and alcohol abuse.  I can tell you as a practical matter that disability benefits were rarely granted to drug and alcohol abuse because judges would typically find the substance abuser could control their addiction.

Most claimants filing for disability that I have seen who are abusing drugs and alcohol are not disabled because of the substance abuse.  Yet substance abuse of any form is a big problem in a social security disability claim.   Usually it is part of their problems, probably makes them worse, and is in response to the stress of their situation.

But substance abuse creates a significant issue that the administrative law judge must look at: what role does the substance abuse play in the disability claim. In the back of every judge’s mind is the understandable concern: if I grant this case will the benefits simply be used to abuse drugs and alcohol? No judge wants to be this kind of “enabler”.

If you are abusing drugs and/or alcohol and have filed for disability benefits know this:

You will not be able to hide any drug and alcohol abuse on your part from social security.  More than likely it is a part of the medical records.

Lying about your substance abuse is worse that the substance abuse itself, because the judge will wonder whether you are lying about other things.  Indeed, administrative law judges who have seen evidence of substance abuse in the record will often see if the claimant is truthful in this area.  Even if the judge may have decided she does not view your substance abuse as a reason to deny your claim, your lying about it may give her reason to deny you.

The fact that you may have a “dual diagnosis” (mental health diagnosis plus substance abuse), or that you are “self-medicating” is not an assurance that you will not be denied due to your substance abuse

All administrative law judge’s are familiar with the fact that people with a mental illness can also have a substance abuse or addiction disorder.  But too many claimants with these problems seem to rely on their “dual diagnosis” as if it give them an excuse to abuse substances.  Claimants with a mental disorder show avoid using the “dual diagnosis” label.

You need to enter treatment if you are abusing substances.

Unfortunately those who abuse substances often have trouble with honesty, in large part due to the fact that they have had to lie to friends and family to cover up their problem with substances.  Administrative law judges are skeptical of claims that “I am cutting back” or “I quit on my own”.   You may be able to quit on your own, but you need more proof than just your word that you have “turned it around”.



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