How Substance Abuse can Adversely Impact one’s Social Security Disability Claim

The issue of substance abuse can come up in a variety of ways as part of a Social Security disability claim.  It might be a circumstance, very routine in this day and age, where somebody is taking too much of their narcotic medication.  Or, one might be taking medications that their friend or relative has suggested they try.  And then, there’s the very common scenario seen by our office where an individual is smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol in order to help them sleep at night.

Each of above scenarios can serve to derail a Social Security disability claim.  Understanding Social Security’s rules can help avoid the pitfalls we many times see individuals face as a result of the use of substances either not prescribed or in a manner that was not provided for by their physician(s).

There are two (2) provisions to keep in mind when considering an application for Social Security disability benefits.  20. C.F.R. §404.1530 provides that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will not find a claimant disabled if they, without good reason, fail to follow prescribed treatment.  Likewise, the Social Security Act additionally provides that one cannot be found entitled to benefits if in fact drug addiction or alcoholism is found to be a “contributing factor material to the determination of disability.”  

Having legal advice as early on in the process is important, as there are certainly steps one can take to ensure that they are not running afoul of the above rules.  As a NH, MA and Maine Social Security lawyer practicing throughout New England for the past 28 years, I come across these issues quite frequently.  Certainly, if someone is drinking alcohol  while at the same time being prescribed anti-depressant medication for mental health concerns, this should raise a concern to both one’s own doctor and SSA as one is causing their depression to worsen by drinking any amount of alcohol (which is a depressant).   In such a circumstance, one could be said to be substantially contributing to their disabling condition while at the same time failing to follow what would be expected to be their psychiatrist’s advice to refrain from alcohol.   Similarly, the excuse that alcohol is being used to help with sleep would likewise be difficult to argue as most doctors would suggest that alcohol interferes with one’s sleep cycle (not to mention affects their mood for the worse).

While many individuals are simply not aware that alcohol is a depressant, or are simply in the habit of having a 6 pack of beer a night, it is important to discontinue such activity as one is harming their health (and increasing the severity of the very condition that is keeping them from working): whether it be mental health concerns, diabetes (and, perhaps, resulting diabetic neuropathy) or liver dysfunction such that one’s liver enzymes are off to the point of causing cognitive issues (such as hepatic encephalopathy).   Assuming one were to stop drinking altogether, SSA will still look to see whether a sufficient period of time has passed so as to be able to say that the individual remains severely disabled from working when the effects of the alcohol can no longer be said to be contributing (and for what is likely to be for a year or longer from that point in time that alcohol can be said to no longer contribute).

With respect to the issue raised previously of taking a prescription drug not prescribed to them (such as one they are provided by a friend or family member), there is a very simple solution: that is, to speak with one’s provider to determine whether the medication may indeed be an appropriate one (and to get a prescription).

The issue of marijuana usage is likewise front and center in this day and age given recent state legislation (which does not address Federal laws) that has allowed for not only the medical use, but recreational use, of marijuana.   It is important to understand, however, that much as would be the case with narcotics, using a substance without a prescription will cause a question mark to be raised as to its appropriateness.  Likewise, there is a big difference between the strength and grade of the marijuana one gets on the street and what might otherwise receive for medicinal purposes.  Given this, taking marijuana only if prescribed and with a license will resolve any question marks that could otherwise be raised.

The easy, short answer would be to refrain from any substances that are illegal, and only utilize alcohol or marijuana only after conferring with your doctor that its use is appropriate (and not contraindicated for your condition).

For additional guidance from an experienced Social Security disability lawyer as you proceed with your Social Security disability claim, contact the Law Offices of Russell J. Goldsmith at  1-800-773-8622.