You can’t receive Social Security disability benefits based on drug addiction even if your dependence on drugs makes it impossible for you to work. So if drug addiction is your only impairment, you don’t qualify for disability benefits. And in fact, if you are addicted to and taking drugs, it can prevent you from getting disability benefits for other impairments as well. (Though if you have stopped taking drugs and the SSA believes that you are in recovery, you should be able to get disability benefits.)
If you are illegally dependent on drugs, you might still be found disabled for other physical or mental impairments and receive 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.
This is true even if your drug addiction caused the physical or mental problems in the first place. For instance, you can be found disabled because of irreversible organ or nerve damage caused by drug addiction, as long as the problems would still exist if you stopped taking drugs.
You can also apply for SSI or SSDI disability benefits for a disabling impairment that’s completely unrelated to drug abuse, such as a herniated disc, breast cancer, or traumatic injuries from an accident. You can get disability benefits for any of these impairments if you must meet the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) stringent requirements for them.
However, in both cases, if the Social Security Administration finds that your drug dependence is 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” – here’s how they do it.
First, the SSA will first determine if all of your physical and mental conditions, including your addiction, render you disabled. If the SSA decides you are disabled, but the SSA has received evidence that you are addicted to drugs (perhaps a doctor’s notation that says “suspected of prescription drug abuse”), the SSA will then start a process to decide if your drug dependence is contributing to your disability (if it is, you won’t get benefits). This process is called a DAA determination.
To evaluate whether your drug addiction contributes to your disability, the key question the SSA tries to answer is: “Would you be able to work (that is, would you still have disabling impairments) if you stopped using drugs?” If the SSA finds that you would have no disabling limitations if you quit taking drugs, the SSA will deny you benefits because your drug addiction is a contributing factor to (or cause of) your disability. For instance, if the SSA finds that your hypertension and seizures would go away if you stopped taking drugs, and that your degenerative disc disease problem does not meet the requirements for a disability alone, you would be denied benefits. For a more detailed explanation of the DAA determination, see our article on how drug abuse or alcoholism affects a disability claim.
If you're approved for benefits but the SSA believes you can't manage your financial affairs responsibly because of your drug use, it will require you to use a representative payee, who will receive your Social Security checks and prevent you from spending the money on drugs.
The SSA recognizes that certain impairments caused by drug abuse can be disabling, such as anxiety or depression, personality disorders, seizures, and brain, organ, or nerve damage. The SSA organizes these impairments under a “substance addiction disorder” in their official impairment listings. To qualify for disability under this listing, you would have to fulfill the SSA’s requirements for any of the underlying impairments. For instance, if you suffer from depression caused by substance abuse, you would have to show you that suffer from four specific symptoms from a list of nine possible symptoms, among other things. However, if you are still using drugs, the SSA would make a DAA determination to determine if your depression would go away if you stopped using drugs. Beware: If you apply for disability benefits for addiction-related depression or anxiety, you will have an uphill battle convincing the SSA that the depression or anxiety wouldn't go away if you stopped using drugs.
If you have a valid disability but are denied benefits because of your drug abuse but you no longer use drugs, get the help of an experienced disability attorney who can help you get benefits.