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Drug tests and background checks
March 6, 2014 5:59 AM   Subscribe

I just got a great job at a federal facility as a non-federal employee. Because I'm going to be working in a federal building, I need a background check, physical, and (presumably) drug test. I've smoked pot in the last month, although not many times in the past several months – I shouldn't trigger a concentration-based drug test, but I could trace positive for trace amounts. I feel totally comfortable about the drug test, unless they disqualify me for /any/ amount of THC, I should be fine. The problem comes with the background check, which asks me if I've done any illegal drugs in the past year.

The answer is yes, of course, but I'm afraid that if I answer truthfully I'll be immediately disqualified from the job. At the same time, if they cross-reference the drug test results with my background check then they might find that I have trace amounts in my system.

I'm going crazy because this is a great job and I'll be upset if I lose it because of something as trivial as marijuana (in California, no less). I don't feel like I have any good options, but I guess I would tend to just suck it up and tell the truth and hope that they don't throw away my application because of it.

I'd love to hear people's thoughts and advice.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Do you have a medical marijuana card?
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:35 AM on March 6


From the OP:
No. I'm moving to California for the job, so I don't have one nor can I get one in time.
posted by taz at 6:47 AM on March 6


Well if you want to split hairs, pot is only illegal in certain states, so your answer is both yes and no. Maybe a quick trip to Washington or Colorado on your way to California is justified, if you want to be able to say truthfully you have been in a state where it is legal? (If you are flying to CA, go via Denver?)

So, sample question and answer.
Questioner - So anonymous, have you ever done any illegal drugs in the last year.
Anonymous - Well, no and yes, I have been to Washington State/Colorado, and I have tried some marijuana.
(all these statements would be true.)
posted by gudrun at 6:52 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Can you say you traveled in Colorado recently if they question your test results?
posted by greta simone at 6:53 AM on March 6


This is tough. I'd be inclined to answer "no" on the question. And then attempt to put off the actual drug test until you are feeling certain it's out of your system. Marijuana is practically legal in some states. Federal law has not caught up. They want to know if you are a drug addict who will compromise your job or their secrets in the course of your addictive behavior. Being truthful will put you in the "no" pile and it would be a long climb out to get them to reconsider.
posted by amanda at 6:53 AM on March 6


The answer is yes, of course

I think you've answered your own question. Lying may get you the job, but is that worth becoming the kind of person who lies to get a job?
posted by DWRoelands at 6:59 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


The answer must be yes. The government really does not care if you smoked in the past. But they really do care if you could be blackmailed in the future because someone found out you lied on a background investigation.
posted by Morgangr at 7:03 AM on March 6 [16 favorites]


I don't smoke but most people I know do. Everyone says No on the form (because duh, saying yes usually gets you disqualified) and then people strategize about how to pass the tests. (There have been previous questions about that as well.)

The Feds don't recognize state legalization as fully legal so mentioning WA or CO is not a guaranteed smart move.

The tests are often not very sensitive so even heavy users who get off it for a bit will often pass.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:05 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]


From the OP:
The drug test/background checks take place before I move, so I can't just visit on my way to California.

I would rather not delay the testing because both my boss and I want me to start as quickly as possible and I don't want to wait the few weeks it'll take for it to go out of my system.

"I think you've answered your own question. Lying may get you the job, but is that worth becoming the kind of person who lies to get a job?

When it's only marijuana, yes?
posted by taz at 7:10 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


If you're only an occasional smoker and you've been clean for a couple weeks, a urine test is likely to be negative. See here.

Can you buy yourself a urine test and see if you pass before you decide?
posted by latkes at 7:28 AM on March 6


From a MeFite who would prefer to remain anon:
There's actually a big controversy around this. For a long time federal contractors like you (and low-level employees) didn't have to go through these background checks at all. This changed after 9/11, and it's been problematic. There was actually a Supreme Court case involving contractors at NASA's JPL. Sadly, the contractors lost, or you wouldn't have this problem right now.

Despite the forms being similar, what you're getting is probably not a security clearance. So I would be wary of people who tell you honesty is best because they're only concerned about blackmail and Soviet moles, or whatever. Maybe true for the CIA or something, but in this case, they really do care (in theory) if you've smoked weed, within that time frame of one year. But I doubt they care very much.

It's also unlikely that they'll be doing more than sending out letters and checking your records; almost certainly no actual investigation. (Disregard this if you're getting a real security clearance, but it sounds like you aren't.) It's a stupid situation and I wish you the best of luck in dealing with it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:36 AM on March 6 [7 favorites]


I would probably, after much hand-wringing, make a judgement call about letter vs. spirit and say "no" on the form. (Well, hypothetically speaking, as I haven't smoked pot in well over 15 years, but I digress.)

That is assuming that your new job has no public safety or sensitive-information components that could make a little pot-smoking potentially relevant -- driving a shuttle van or doing building demolition in populated areas or doing any kind of civil or criminal legal work, etc.

Yes, it's still lying, even if you (or hypothetical-me) can justify it; I'm not disputing that. Up to you to decide whether the risks are something you're willing to live with.
posted by desuetude at 7:55 AM on March 6


I think you've answered your own question. Lying may get you the job, but is that worth becoming the kind of person who lies to get a job?

When the question is a stupid one they have no business asking? Yes. OP, you're not applying to be James Bond. They don't care about blackmail. This sounds more like any corporate job, where stupidly written HR policies overrule common sense. If this were about a security clearance, it would be different because there could be na investigation, but if not, I see no reason you need to play by these rules. I would say "no".
posted by spaltavian at 7:59 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Say no. If you say yes you won't get the job.
posted by killdevil at 8:02 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I would rather not delay the testing because both my boss and I want me to start as quickly as possible and I don't want to wait the few weeks it'll take for it to go out of my system.

I completely 100% understand this, but consider the longer you wait the better off your chances will be. Obvs you can't wait too long, but perhaps? Just perhaps long enough to wrap up your local affairs before you get tested? In the grand scheme of things a week or two might be the difference between getting your job or being horribly crushed.

I like the idea of going down to Walgreens and buying the home test kit to test yourself. They may not be as good as the test run on you, but should at least give you a heads up if you test yourself and it shows positive.

Yeah, overall small potatoes I think. Answer no, stall just a little, take the home test, start exercising.

(any chance you know what kind of drug test they will run?)
posted by edgeways at 8:10 AM on March 6


IME, for any sort of federal or federal contractor clearance / background check, saying that you've used illegal drugs (for federal purposes, marijuana counts, even if it was in WA or CO) within the last year means they will not hire you. Flat out, there is a bright line at one year.

There may or may not be an actual test. Even for Secret clearances, where there was a declared history of marijuana use, there were no actual drug tests. Also, any test would be for some standard threshold concentration, not trace amounts.

If you are drug tested I believe the likelihood of anyone comparing your stated abstinence from drug use with drug test results which came back negative (to the standard threshhold) but still elevated from 0 and drawing an adverse inference is very, very small.

Note: Information above may not be relevant to very high levels of clearance, which it sounds like this isn't.
posted by pseudonick at 8:21 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]


It should be noted here that lying on any formal background check form (SF85 and SF86 in particular) is a felony - it violates 18 U.S.C. § 1001 - so any answer here that suggests doing so is advocating illegal activity.
posted by saeculorum at 8:49 AM on March 6 [4 favorites]


I was in the same situation and I felt it best not to lie about my drug use, so I indicated that I have used cannabis in the last year (but underestimated the frequency by quite a bit). About a year later, I got a letter from the Fed saying that my background check was complete and that I should refrain from drug use because being caught under the influence at work would result in my being fired. I did not have to take a drug test and was definitely not disqualified from the job -- in fact, my contracting agent tried to buy weed from me once -- but it is most likely on my permanent record. This was for a federal contracting job in the District of Columbia.
posted by fartbutt at 8:54 AM on March 6 [5 favorites]


Echoing saecolorum: you shouldn't make material false statements to the federal government. It's a really good way to end up in a cage.
posted by ewiar at 9:12 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


The answer must be yes. The government really does not care if you smoked in the past. But they really do care if you could be blackmailed in the future because someone found out you lied on a background investigation.

If you're 100% honest, and show that you aren't 'blackmailable', thats a good thing.

Also, I highly doubt you are getting a 'security clearance' which will follow you after your job. You are probably just being vetted and given clearance to work where you are working. Not so serious.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:19 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Just as an aside, do you know if you will have to undergo a polygraph? I have for background checks before and that may influence your decision.

But really, honesty is the best policy. If you are honest and they turn you down, you will likely be able to reapply later. If you are dishonest and they find out, you are out permanently from any other jobs that require a background check.

And, can you guarantee your references, primary and secondary, will give similar statements?
posted by Beti at 9:23 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


The worst thing you can do is lie about it on the security form.

The worst thing that can happen (and I do mean worse than not getting the job at all), is being found out several months into the job, and being fired. Then you'll have relocated, are jobless, and have a firing in your work history.
posted by auntie maim at 10:20 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


From the OP:
OK, well it seems I should tell the truth which was sorta what I was expecting but not what I feel totally comfortable with. Oh well...

Next step... "If you answered "Yes," provide information relating to the types of substance(s), the nature of the activity, and any other details relating to your involvement with illegal drugs. Include any treatment or counseling received."

What's the best way to handle this? I've smoked on and off since I started college, though I haven't smoked very much since graduation, basically only if I'm meeting up with an old friend who I've smoked with in the past. A large deal of this has occurred in other countries, although I'm not sure that matters. I've never gotten treatment or counseling because 1) it's marijuana and 2) I have never had trouble going cold turkey when it's come down to a real need.
posted by jessamyn at 10:36 AM on March 6


To the OP: based on jessamyn's comment immediately above, it sounds like you need to apply for a security clearance (or at least a Position of Public Trust).

You need to be 100% truthful. It probably won't prevent you from getting a Public Trust, but if your use was within the last year that *could* pose a problem if you need a Secret or Top Secret level clearance. Try to find out which.

If your form is the SF-85P, you're applying for a Position of Public Trust.
If your form is the SF-86, you're applying for a security clearance, and you should try to find out what level of clearance you'll need just so you will know what to expect.

-- If you're applying for a Secret level clearance, all you'll need to do is fill out the form truthfully. They may or may not ask you anything else. If they do ask, it will be by phone.
-- If you're applying for a Top Secret level clearance, you WILL be interviewed in person (not because of your drug use -- but because they interview ALL applicants for TS), and the interviewer will go over every question and answer on that form. You can clarify what you've said on the form at that time. Also, your neighbors and the three "people who you know well" will be interviewed about you.
posted by tckma at 10:56 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Also, worth noting: Even though pot may have been declared "legal" in certain states, it is STILL a FEDERAL crime, and you are applying for a job at a FEDERAL facility.
posted by tckma at 11:15 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


i know people who have applied for federal jobs who answered (truthfully) yes to the drug question and still got the job.
posted by nadawi at 3:33 PM on March 6


I don't know if this is the job for you. As someone else pointed out, you're RELOCATING for this job. Do you really want to risk a giant move and then get canned because of not giving the right answer (whatever the hell that answer is, I'm not even sure)?

At the very least, if you're going to possibly get canned for drugs one way or another, is there a way for you to take the test and get results before you start signing leases and packing the U-Haul?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:46 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Also, worth noting: Even though pot may have been declared "legal" in certain states, it is STILL a FEDERAL crime, and you are applying for a job at a FEDERAL facility.

Just so you know, The people who overlook SC don't think MJ is a big deal. In fact, it used to be that they didn't want you to have ingested cannabis within the last 2 years, and not more than 15 times in total. Use this information wisely.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:01 AM on March 9


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