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Past Drug Use Remains a Problem for Security Clearances in 2024

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Currently, 24 states have legalized or at least decriminalized recreational use of marijuana, while another 14 states have legalized or decriminalized it for medical reasons. According to a Gallup poll from last November, more than two-thirds (68%) of Americans also supported legalizing marijuana at the federal level – the highest since Gallup began tracking public opinion on the issue in 1969, when just 12% said they were in favor.

It was also in October 2022 that the White House initiated marijuana reform, while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have also sought to address the issue. Yet, even as there are increasing calls for cannabis to be legalized nationwide, it does remain illegal, and that continues to be a hurdle for future clearance holders.

“There is a low grade war between the people who judicate security clearance and the general population, and this issue is far from resolved,” said Dan Meyer, partner with Tully Rinckey PLLC’s National Security Clearance practice.

As long as it remains illegal at the federal level, cannabis could be a problem for those seeking security clearances – especially for younger Americans, who are now growing up in a new normal where it is more widely accepted.

Meyer explained to ClearanceJobs that there was a time when past drug use could be mitigated during a security clearance review as a youthful indiscretion, that it was simple experimenting that was done in high school or early in college. Many who sought a future career in government or related fields curbed the use early on.

The term “recent” continues to be the magic word when the issue of drug use comes up.

“For younger people today, 24 months may seem not all that recent, but for the Department of Defense, it is more like five to seven years,” added Meyer.

Another challenge he noted is that role models and influencers – such as parents, professors and employers – may not have such a negative view of cannabis.


Given the option between someone who has a history of drug use and experience, versus someone who has no such history but also lacks the experience and skills, there remains a likelihood that the federal government will opt for the latter job candidate.

“We’re seeing that they’ll go with the safer group that may have less expertise,” warned Meyer. “That is major part of the low-grade cultural war over the use of cannabis that we are seeing right now.”

Another factor to consider is that all too often applicants don’t realize they need to show that past drug use isn’t a problem. Applicants show up ill-prepared, and expect that the government needs to prove there is a problem, when the reality is that the job seeker needs to prove isn’t.

Proving a negative isn’t exactly impossible, but it presents those added challenges.

“Use of substances that remain illegal under federal law continues to bedevil security clearance applicants, particularly as GenZ enters fully into the workforce,” said Bradley P. Moss of the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid, P.C.

“No matter what was permitted under state laws, the federal law has not changed and people considering working for the federal government in the future need to bear that in mind,” Moss told ClearanceJobs. “The government is certainly aware of the realities of the situation, but rules are rules, and if the drug use was significant or recent it can absolutely pose a problem in getting cleared.”


As previously reported, the DoD has long maintained a strict zero-tolerance policy that prohibits troops from smoking, eating, or otherwise using marijuana and marijuana-derived products. That includes those that contain CBD or THC – the latter being the main “high-inducing” chemical found in marijuana.

However, it has largely been up to the individual services to set their own policies on how to handle those applicants who have used those products before enlisting.

 Applicants that receive a waver would be expected not to use marijuana in the future.


Another issue that continues to present problems is the use of prescription opioids – which has increasingly received attention in recent years as Americans unexpectedly became dependent on the drugs.

“We marched an entire generation down the path to addiction,” suggested Meyer, who explained that opioids should avoided unless absolutely necessary, and that records of their use need to be taken to show that it was only used as a directed. “A point to remember is that the security clearance process doesn’t really care about your health.”

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