Can You Get Disability for Drug Addiction?

If drug abuse has caused your body serious damage, you may be able to get disability benefits from Social Security.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

You can't receive Social Security disability benefits (SSDI or SSI) based on drug addiction alone (since a rule change in 1996), even if your dependence on drugs makes it impossible for you to work. So if drug addiction is your only impairment, you won't qualify for disability benefits. And in fact, if you're addicted to and using drugs, it can prevent you from getting disability benefits for other impairments as well.

However, if you've stopped taking drugs and the Social Security Administration (SSA) believes you're in recovery, you should be able to get disability benefits for drug-related damage and other impairments. Read on to learn how substance abuse can affect your disability claim, how the SSA treats addiction, and how to qualify for benefits.

Disability Is Sometimes Available for Drug-Related Damage and Other Impairments

If you're dependent on drugs and you have other physical or mental impairments, you might be able to receive disability benefits—under certain conditions. If you have severe physical or mental problems (other than your drug addiction) that are disabling, and the problems would exist even if you stopped taking drugs, you can qualify for disability benefits.

Even if your drug addiction caused the physical or mental problems in the first place, you would still qualify for benefits. For instance, you can be found disabled because of irreversible organ or nerve damage caused by drug addiction—so long as the problems would still exist if you stopped taking drugs.

You can also apply for SSDI or SSI benefits for a disabling impairment that's completely unrelated to drug abuse, such as breast cancer or traumatic injuries from an accident. You can get disability benefits for any of a hundred impairments if you meet the SSA's stringent requirements for them.

However, if the Social Security Administration finds that your drug dependence is actively contributing to your disability, you won't get benefits. Technically, the SSA will determine whether your drug addiction is a "contributing factor material to the determination of disability."

How Does the SSA Determine Disability When You're Addicted to Drugs?

First, the SSA will determine if you have physical or mental conditions that make you disabled. If the SSA decides you're disabled but has received evidence that you're addicted to drugs (like a doctor's notation that says "suspected of prescription drug abuse"), the SSA will try to determine if your drug dependence is causing your medical condition or making it worse. (If it is, you won't get benefits.) This determination process is called a drug addiction/alcoholism (DAA) determination.

To evaluate whether your drug abuse contributes to your disability, the key question the SSA tries to answer is this:

"Would you be able to work (or would you still have disabling impairments) if you stopped using drugs?"

If the SSA finds that you wouldn't be disabled if you quit taking drugs, the SSA will deny you benefits because your drug use is a factor that contributes to (or causes) your disability.

For instance, let's say you have hypertension (high blood pressure), seizures, and degenerative disc disease (DDD). If the SSA finds that your hypertension and seizures would go away if you stopped using drugs and that your DDD alone doesn't meet the requirements for a disability, you would be denied benefits. Learn more about how a DAA determination affects a disability claim.

On the other hand, if the SSA finds that your impairments wouldn't improve if you stopped using drugs—meaning you still wouldn't be able to work—you would be approved for disability benefits (even if you're still using drugs).

If you're approved for benefits, but the SSA believes you can't manage your financial affairs responsibly because of your drug use, the SSA won't send your disability checks directly to you. Instead, the SSA will require you to use a representative payee who'd receive your benefit checks to prevent you from spending the money on drugs.

Can You Ever Get Benefits for a Mental Illness With a Substance Use Disorder?

Certain emotional or physical impairments can be caused or made worse by drug abuse, such as:

To qualify for disability for any of these impairments, you'd have to fulfill the SSA's requirements for the related listings.

But if you're still using drugs—even prescription drugs if you're using more than your doctor prescribed—the SSA will definitely make a DAA determination to decide if your impairments would go away if you stopped using drugs. And you'd have a very steep uphill battle convincing the SSA that your depression, anxiety, seizures, or issues caused by a personality disorder wouldn't go away if you stopped using drugs. Very few people in this circumstance are approved for disability benefits.

Getting Help With Your Disability Claim

Drug addiction can significantly complicate your Social Security disability claim. Your past and current drug use can make it extremely difficult to get the benefits you'd otherwise be entitled to.

If you have a valid disability but are denied benefits because of your drug abuse and you no longer use drugs, an experienced disability attorney can help you get the benefits you deserve. Learn more about how a disability expert can help you win your case.

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