I am now living in a state (in the US) where marijuana is legal (for recreational use) and I'd like to be able to try it. However, I am concerned that doing so might effect my job or grant prospects as a current graduate student. In my field, students can intern for the DoD or NSA and my understanding is that smoking marijuana is a disqualifier for those kinds of positions.

Am I correct in this?

Are there any other grants or jobs for which this would be disqualifying?

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    Internships for DoD/NSA are not prerequisites for job/grant applications, are they? Dec 15, 2019 at 22:01
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    Right but it's federally illegal, even though it's legal on the state level (@Zarrax). Also, definitely not (@Dmitry) but it's nice to have more options
    – user117415
    Dec 15, 2019 at 22:05
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    Maybe you'll get better answers on workplace stack exchange? Dec 15, 2019 at 22:25
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    @Zarrax I remember hearing a story about how one of the three-letter agencies used to have a policy that banned the hiring of anyone who had ever used marijuana, and how they had to remove it when they started trying to hire computer hackers because they couldn’t find any of them that hadn’t indulged at some point.
    – nick012000
    Dec 15, 2019 at 23:07
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    A simple search will turn up the fact that it is probably criminal to lie on any US federal job application. The issue is that it is a crime to lie to a federal agent - the recipient of the application. Whether this makes sense or not is immaterial. DOD and NSA in particular are paranoid about these things.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2019 at 23:10

6 Answers 6


Regardless of current policy, your career may be affected by policies 30 years in the future. Although the trend seems to be towards increased tolerance of marijuana, it is not possible to predict how things will be throughout your career. When I was a teenager US federal policy seemed to be moving in the direction of eliminating poverty and racial injustice as important objectives - see the "Great Society" programs.

You seem to be in a field that may lead to US government employment, or needing a US security clearance, or both. That makes you very vulnerable to changes in policy. The consequences of not being able to truthfully deny ever using illegal drugs could change in either direction.

You will have to make your own trade-off, but remember that you need to consider what could happen over several decades, not just what is happening now.

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    Hopefully things improve, as you say. But currently the federal government treats marijuana exactly the same as it treats heroin and cocaine. State laws may be more lenient but that may be of no consequence if you bump against a federal official. See: criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/…
    – Buffy
    Dec 16, 2019 at 1:33
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    @Buffy only sort of. marijuana, heroin and cocaine all will result in a failed drug test, but when evaluating someone for security risks, they actually use common sense.
    – StrongBad
    Dec 16, 2019 at 2:11
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    @Nelson That's more a question of responsible use, rather than use vs. non-use. Dec 16, 2019 at 7:38
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    @JRE You inform yourself about safe dosages, and consume a safe dosage. Also, in the case of marijuana, the chances of somebody voluntarily leaving the house while under the influence are usually rather slim. Dec 16, 2019 at 9:39
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    I agree with @lighthousekeeper. I sometimes consume alcohol. A glass of wine with dinner does not make me want to cross a highway naked. It is a safe dose for me for most purposes, but I do think it tends to increase my reaction times, and might affect judgement, so I don't drive until at least 10 hours and a night's sleep after drinking. Dec 16, 2019 at 9:47

I work for the DoD and have colleagues who have been arrested related to marijuana. I am not aware of any grants that require additional drug testing or more than a provisional security clearance. All of our positions, even internships, require the individual to complete an SF86 and be granted provisional clearance. Past drug use, and even convictions, does not disqualify you from gaining provisional clearance. Not all positions require a pre-employment drug test and not all positions are testing designate.

I would (do not) worry about recreational use of marijuana and its effects on future employability. The key, like everything on the SF86, is to be honest. If you have used in the past, or have a conviction, you need to declare it. Things get messy and from my understanding, it is not clear if you need to declare drug usage that is illegal in the US if it was used someplace that it is legal.

  • It's amazing that even 5+ after legalization this is still a grey area. OTOH, since the feds have done basically nothing to challenge those states in all that time, it seems like it would be shaky ground to retroactively penalize someone for doing something completely legal. Dec 16, 2019 at 2:44
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    @Elizabeth But it isn't completely legal. It is still illegal at the federal level. States cant override federal law. The feds not enforcing the law for a period of time doesn't make it not the law.
    – Matt
    Dec 16, 2019 at 13:20
  • The conversation about government dominance has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. Dec 16, 2019 at 22:35

I've gone through the process, so here is my experience.

Marijuana use won't be disqualifying in itself but it will be considered a negative factor for getting a security clearance.

Usually if it occurred well in the past and doesn't establish a pattern of questionable behavior (for example you used marijuana, had a DUI, had other misdemeanors in the same period ), it will be OK.

It's a much bigger problem if the use is ongoing or fairly recent and can not be chalked up as youthful indiscretion.

If you are planning to apply for any jobs / internships that require security clearance, I suggest not using marijuana. And yes, there are internships that require security clearance.

You might even be disqualified from some jobs that don't require security clearance. I worked on a NOAA contract that required "public trust" - basically a background check - which actually uses the same process used for getting a security clearance. While the bar for getting that is much lower, they still ask for drug use and expect you to disclose it.

Just recently HR sent a company wide email forwarding guidance from the federal government that despite states making marijuana use legal, it (the federal government) still considers it illicit drug.

So long story short - if you are planning a career that has anything to do with the federal government do not use marijuana.


In my field, students can intern for the DoD or NSA and my understanding is that smoking marijuana is a dis-qualifier for those kinds of positions.

I would clarify a few points:

  • Many grants are sponsored by the DoD, and it is common for academics (in universities and industry R&D) to receive these grants. You do not need a clearance to get a grant unless the grant requires classified work. This often leads to a first-mover problem: you need a classified contract to get a clearance, and you need an active clearance to be competitive for many classified contracts.
  • Getting a clearance takes a months, and can take years in extreme cases. So, I would not most expect a summer internship to require a clearance. There could be exceptions, but they would have to hire you and start your SF-86 several months in advance.
  • It is true that recent or ongoing marijuana use would certainly prevent you from maintaining a clearance. Historical marijuana use is unlikely to be a problem if you are honest about it. I am not aware of any hard cutoff between "recent" and "historic," but anecdotally I have heard 1-4 years.

Are there any other grants or jobs for which this would be disqualifying?

I am not aware of any grants, at the DoD or otherwise, that would ask about your drug use. On the other hand, random drug testing is mandatory for all/most federal employees as well as many large companies (though even the companies that do drug test may or may not care about marijuana).

  • Provisional clearance can be granted pretty quickly and is often all that is needed to work at secure locations. Not all federal positions are testing designated. I am not sure if current usage would prevent clearance, especially if you are not in a TDP as they would never find out.
    – StrongBad
    Dec 16, 2019 at 2:13
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    Thanks for your notes. Replies: (1) They can be super quick, particularly for young people with no foreign ties. They can also take YEARS, even for interim. (2) ok, I said all/most to leave myself wiggle-room, I guess it is "most." (3) The DoD is a big place, but I have never heard of anyone getting it without at least a year since last use. You could lie, I guess, but some positions do require polygraphs, and getting caught in a lie is the easiest way to lose your clearance.
    – cag51
    Dec 16, 2019 at 2:22

This is not an expert answer, and hopefully someone will provide a better one, but here is what I could gather.

My impression is that: past use of marijuana is unlikely to impact your employment prospects at federal agencies. The greater concern would be with ongoing use. I have no solid information on the frequency of drug testing during federal unemployment, but it is in principle a possibility; more significantly, it seems that a drug test is a rather common component of hiring, especially for employees requiring a security clearance, which is common for scientific positions in national security.

To provide one piece of data, it seems that the Department of Energy, one of the largest federal employers of scientists, requires a drug test during the security clearance process. This reference asserts that cleared employees in general should expect a drug test when changing jobs, though not necessarily during employment.

In short, I can find no evidence that trying marijuana while not in the federal hiring process has any associated employment risks, and I have very strong priors against the idea that it would. However developing a regular marijuana habit would likely make it quite difficult to get hired at these organizations.


Honestly, I would just not disclose that type of information and instead tell them that you don't use those substances. The fact is that public policy is extremely out of touch with substance use and it really shouldn't matter what you do in your personal life if you are qualified to be doing the job. Just like your sexual orientation, you really should not be disqualified from something you're qualified for because you decide to make a personal decision about what goes into your body. As long as you're not the type to be abusing substances to the point that it would impact your performance on the job then I truly cannot see any reason why you can't be doing both. However, with all of this being said, if they do drug testing then you're facing a very different set of risks. Many top performing professionals in their fields have used and do use substances, so live your life while also getting that position.

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    This doesn't answer the question. While I'm sure all us good progressives agree that marijuana prohibition is silly, the American Department of Defense is not run by us, and the question was whether marijuana use could have a negative impact at such an institution. Dec 15, 2019 at 23:02
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    When going through the clearance process, you will most likely be asked about your prior drug use.
    – Zarrax
    Dec 15, 2019 at 23:08
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    @D.Gray Because they drug test. Dec 15, 2019 at 23:15
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    Dangerous - career killing dangerous - because you affirm, under oath, to the honesty of your answers.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2019 at 23:19
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    @D.Gray Because if they find out (say through a lie detector test) you'll likely be unable to get a clearance in the future, and there may even be legal consequences.
    – Zarrax
    Dec 15, 2019 at 23:36

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