In years past, Social Security Disability benefits were available to individuals suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. The idea was that these people were so impaired that they were unable to engage in sustained work activity. However, the law has changed with regard to substance abuse. Nowadays, it generally harms your chances of success in obtaining benefits.
In 2013, Social Security published its most recent guidance on the issue, SSR 13-2p. It reiterates Sections 223(d)(2)(C) and 1614(a)(3)(J) of the Social Security Act (Act), which provide that a claimant “shall not be considered to be disabled if alcoholism or drug addiction would be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” In layman's terms, if your impairment would disappear if you stopped abusing drugs and/or alcohol, then you will be found not disabled. In reality, this is a medical question being decided by a medical layperson (usually, a disability examiner or ALJ). To account for this, SSR 13-2p provides extended guidance on evaluating these types of claims. In some cases, even when drug or alcohol abuse is an issue, it is possible to still prevail on a claim.
For example, most physical impairments, by their very nature, would not improve in the absence of substance abuse. Degenerative disc disease of the spine is not dependent on alcohol or drug abuse. If a claimant suffers from a severe musculoskeletal condition and has sufficient medical documentation, then he or she can win disability benefits even if actively abusing drugs or alcohol. Exceptions exist, like alcohol-induced Hepatitis, but the majority of physical impairments are not substantially affected by SSR 13-2p.
Another prominent example involves periods of sobriety. When I handle a claim involving drugs or alcohol, one of the first things I look for in the file is whether there is a sustained period of abstinence from substance use. If there is, then the next question is whether my client's medical problem persisted during this period. If so, then there is a strong argument that his or her substance use is not material to the determination of disability. The more periods of abstinence in the record, the better.
If your claim is pending, and you have substance issues, the most important thing to do is to seek treatment for this immediately. Structured rehabilitation is the best way to overcome addiction. Additionally, it will bolster your disability claim and prove to your adjudicator that you're serious about becoming - and staying - clean.