Legal Drug Use And Your Security Clearance

The Office of Personnel Management aims to clarify sensitive issues with its new application form.

new SF86, the application form used to issue security clearances, is being released this week and will be implemented sometime in August. Many of the changes are procedural and designed to make it easier for individuals to submit complete forms. These changes include updating the options for providing phone information (since the days of everyone having a ‘home’ phone are behind us), a tool to help find school addresses, and a clarification for derivative citizenship (citizenship you obtained via birth, not application).

The two big changes relate to mental health and drug use.

All Drug Use Must Be Noted

The SF86 has always asked about illegal drug use, but the question has become more confusing in recent years with eight states legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Many security clearance applicants assume they don’t need to list this legal activity under Section 23 of the SF86, which asks about illegal drug use. In 2013, following the marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado, the Office of Personnel Management published a notice to the federal register indicating the plan to clarify what illegal drug use is— and that it includes any drug use that’s still illegal under federal law.

Since it takes multiple years to update the policies governing national security, that proposed change has now finally made its way into the security clearance application. The actual policy hasn’t changed. OPM is just looking to make it clear that any drug use must be listed on the SF86—even marijuana use that may have been legal under state law.

Will this policy change lead to new security clearance denials? Unlikely. The amount and frequency of use is also a consideration. Kimberley Berlin is a licensed clinical social worker and certified substance abuse counselor. She regularly evaluates individuals who have been denied a security clearance due to drug use, and she finds millennials to be a unique cohort.

“They’ve grown up with states making marijuana legal,” said Berlin. “A lot of their predecessors, their parents perhaps, used [marijuana]. They don’t see this, in their world . . . as the gateway drug.”

When those individuals can demonstrate their use was limited—and confirm they will stop completely —they can often successfully obtain the security clearance they need to pursue a federal government career.

Reducing the Stigma of Mental Health Treatment

The other key change to the SF86 is another update years in the making. Section 21, which requires applicants to provide mental health information, has been significantly limited in scope. Rather than requiring any mental health counseling or treatment to be listed, the new question updates the information applicants are required to report. The hope is to reduce the stigma for national security personnel, and specifically veterans, seeking mental health treatment.

In a memo announcing the planned change, then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted the update is meant to not find out if an individual has sought treatment, but “whether an individual has a condition that may affect his or her eligibility for access to classified information (security clearance) or for eligibility to hold a sensitive position.”

The updated SF86 now asks if an applicant has:

  • Been declared mentally incompetent by a court or administrative agency
  • Been ordered to consult with a mental health professional by a court or administrative agency
  • Been hospitalized for a mental health condition
  • Been diagnosed by a physician or other health professional with specifically listed diagnoses
  • A mental health or other health condition that substantially adversely affects judgment, reliability and trustworthiness

These updated to the SF86 don’t represent major shift in policy. But they’re welcome news for those hoping to make the security clearance process a little (emphasis on little) more streamlined. These updates will hopefully make it a bit easier for individuals to correctly (and completely) fill out their SF86.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of and a former Defense Department employee.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that the new SF86 form will be implemented later in August. All marijuana use must be reported, even that which may be legal under state law.