Can I apply for Social Security disability benefits if I have a drug or alcohol addiction?

Yes, but your addiction cannot be the reason why you are unable to work. You cannot apply for disability on the basis of your addiction alone. This means that there must be another medical or psychiatric condition other than your addiction that is the reason why you cannot work.

One situation that occurs frequently is a person diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder. This means that someone is diagnosed with a drug or alcohol addiction and a psychiatric condition, such as depression or anxiety. When someone with a co-occurring disorder applies for Social Security disability benefits, the main question to be answered is: Would this person be unable to work, i.e., would he still be experiencing sustained and significant limitations due to his psychiatric condition, if he was not using drugs or alcohol?

This question can be incredibly difficult to answer, as many symptoms of psychiatric conditions are similar to the effects of drug or alcohol abuse. For example, is the claimant unable to concentrate because he is preoccupied with anxious thoughts, or is he unable to concentrate because he is high? Does the claimant sleep during the day and stay awake at night because of depression, or is she staying up all night to use drugs? Does the claimant have frequent falls because of weakness in his hip due to arthritis, or because he is drunk?

The primary way Social Security will attempt to answer this question is by trying to identify any prior periods of sobriety. If Social Security is able to find such periods, it will determine the severity of the claimant’s medical and psychiatric conditions and how the claimant functioned in his daily life and work. Social Security will then compare these periods of sobriety with the claimant’s current functioning and try to determine which of his current limitations are a result of the drug or alcohol abuse, and which are a result of his medical or psychiatric conditions.

This method clearly has some limitations. Unfortunately, if the claimant does not have any periods of sobriety, DDS will have no information about how the claimant functions in the absence of alcohol or drugs. The likely result is that her claim will be denied because DDS cannot determine whether she could work if she was sober.

But what about conditions caused by alcohol or drug abuse? Most people think of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol abuse, but alcohol and drug abuse can also cause permanent cognitive impairments, chronic bronchitis, seizures, stroke, psychosis, etc. The list goes on. If the claimant’s drug or alcohol abuse caused a condition that has lasted or is expected to last 12 months or more, the effects of that condition will be considered in determining whether the claimant is disabled. Even if the claimant’s use of drugs or alcohol were the only reason why the claimant developed the condition, the relevant inquiry is still whether the limitations from that condition would still exist if the claimant attained sobriety.

Summary: No matter the type or cause of the condition, the key inquiry when a claimant has an active drug or alcohol addiction is always: Would the claimant still be unable to work if he stopped using drugs or alcohol? Put another way, would the claimant’s current limitations still exist if he were sober? If the answer is yes, the claimant’s application for Social Security disability benefits will be approved. If the answer is no, the application will be denied.

Author: Kathryn L. Blevins, Esq.

Attorney. Small business owner. Military family. I am the owner and attorney at Blevins Law, LLC. My firm focuses on Social Security disability claims (SSI and SSDI), Veterans' Disability Compensation, Advance Medical Directives and medical and financial powers of attorney. I also assist veterans assessing other types of VA benefits they may be eligible for. I am licensed in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and am a VA Accredited Attorney. I am the proud wife of an Army veteran, and the proud mother of two amazing children and three rescued fur children.

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