Daughter Asking About Drug History Questionnaire
May 16, 2014 3:41 PM   Subscribe

My daughter (24) has a chance to get a great job in a government agency. She has to fill out a notarized questionnaire about past drug use. She did her share of experimenting with various stuff, but nothing recently and she feels that she would pass a drug test easily. She's a damn sight straighter and I was at her age.

She asks whether is would be better to be honest about her past, or just deny her previous dallies into this stuff. It is a job she really wants and one that would pay her more than most 20somethings earn. My leaning would be to just lie, esp. since I doubt there are any pics on the net of her taking bong hits, or bragging about this stuff, etc. If she came clean about it, knowing it was in the past, would this likely disqualify her?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely be honest. I can't stress this enough. If she ever reaches a level where she has to take a polygraph test and it comes out that she lied earlier then the consequences are non-trivial, while being honest about it now and the fact that she's now clean will pretty much be accepted.
posted by Runes at 3:44 PM on May 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

My understanding is that a (U.S. -- your country's mileage and/or kilometerage may vary) government background check involves a not-inconsiderable amount of following-up on references by interviewing, in person, people who knew the candidate. They don't just run your social security number through a database looking for outstanding warrants.

Accordingly, the better policy is to be honest, because admitting to drug use might disqualify her for a job, but getting caught lying on a background questionnaire will definitely disqualify her for a job and may come with bonus perjury prosecutions depending on what she had to sign and how vigorously they want to discourage people lying to the government.
posted by gauche at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

Nothing good will come of lying here.
posted by jeather at 3:50 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Swing towards being honest. Frankly if she didn't do stuff they'd be curious. For security clearances they're really worried about your credit history over drug use. It just takes one person who they will interview over the phone to say,"Oh, well, we may have done XYZ a few times" to end any forward progress.

Rumor around a former job was always about this Mormon guy who claimed to never have had a drink in his life. No one believed him and they refused to give him a clearance. After several appeals and a few polygraphs, he got his clearance.
posted by Farce_First at 3:52 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know what the job is or the agency but often if the drug use is outside a certain timeframe it won't stop her from being hired. Again depends massively on the position.

Also, yes lying now could destroy her career down the line.

I would recommend consulting a lawyer who specializes in this. A quick consult should tell you what you need to know.

This is not legal advice.
posted by whoaali at 3:53 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

One of the things a government agency is looking for is security risk. One of the ways you are a security risk is if you have Dirty Secrets that are you actively trying to keep hidden. Lying = Dirty Secrets. Telling the truth = "indiscretions of youth". Dirty Secrets is a big bad problem for security clearances. Indiscretions of youth that you can laugh about and not feel uncomfortable admitting, generally: not so much.
posted by Michele in California at 3:55 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

First, in your research regarding standards being applied, make sure you realize the difference between a "Public Trust" position which requires the applicant to fill out the SF-85, versus the "Questionnaire for National Security Positions" -- i.e., the SF-86.

Although the SF-85 asks questions about prior drug use, it is NOT a security clearance and you should not confuse the rigor of security clearance investigations with the investigations done for public trust positions requiring the SF-85.

Generally, as I understand it, the rule of thumb for both public trust positions and clearances is that disclosing on the form does NOT disqualify you from getting the cert or clearance. But material omissions on the form will immediately get you dinged. Material omissions on the form will result in denials of the cert of clearance, which could potentially end her federal service before it starts.

I am a federal employee with a public trust cert. I work with colleagues who have had run-ins with the law for drug issues in their past, who have maintained their certs. I have friends who have clearances that have had run-ins with the law who have maintained their clearances. In all of those cases, as far as I am aware, there was full disclosure to OPM when asked.

This is not legal advice.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 3:57 PM on May 16, 2014 [12 favorites]

Anecdata: Someone I know went through this process. When he filled out his first background questionnaire he admitted to having smoked pot. At a subsequent in-person meeting with the investigator, he was asked "So when was the last time you smoked pot?"

"Probably three, three and a half years ago."

"How many times would you say you smoked pot?"

He thought a moment, said, "Let's say 5000."

"Five thousand? You can't say that!"

"You want me to be truthful, right? I figure, average three times a day, 365 days in a year, for about five years. Ballpark, that's five thousand."

He's held a national security clearance for well over a decade.

Do NOT lie, minimize, or try to dodge the question.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:02 PM on May 16, 2014 [25 favorites]

Obama smoked pot! He's president! It's okay! Be honest. Even in the off chance that she didn't get the job, which is worse, not getting a job due to honesty, or getting a job and then living in fear of discovery for the duration of said job?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 4:07 PM on May 16, 2014 [9 favorites]

depends on the agency and their rules. reconnoiter the ground in advance, is, for example, smoking a joint five and a half years ago not a disqualification? okay, i smoked a joint five and a half years ago.

certainly, downplay any involvement. "several occasions" is better than "a dozen occasions". "several" goes up to 50 at least; supreme court opinions frequently refer to our country as "the several states".

you said "notarized". that just means the signature has been verified, and adds nothing to the solemnity of the occasion. could you have perhaps meant "sworn"? that's a whole new ballgame. perjury is a felony. no felonies!

lie detector tests are trivial to game if you know how.
posted by bruce at 4:09 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Argh, past the edit window. I was imprecise in my earlier answer in naming the form.

The SF-85 is the "Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions".

The SF-85P is the "Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions".

If we're talking about the SF-85P, some very common (general) advice is to read the time restrictions on the drug question very closely, and to pay close attention to the precise question being asked. The same holds true, I think, for the SF-86, but those questions are a lot more specific.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 4:09 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a huge fan of bending rules and even straight-up lying to whizz past the gates of stupid, but even I would not lie about mundane drug use on an application for a Federal job that requires a background check.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:21 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

More anecdata - I had two friends go through this with vastly different results. They both applied to internships with the US mission to NATO in Belgium and were given one of these questionnaires. One admitted to smoking marijuana, one did not. One was lying, and I bet you can tell which one. They both got the internship and completed it successfully. After they were done, they both moved into government positions (different departments, but similar jobs) that required them to do a polygraph and their previous questionnaires were pulled during that process.

One still works for the gov't, one does not. I'll let you guess which is which.
posted by _DB_ at 4:35 PM on May 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

The whole point of these background checks is to make sure there's nothing in your present life that will compromise your ability to do work, and nothing in your past that can be used as leverage against you.

If you lie about using drugs then someone working for the commies could find out you lied and blackmail you into sharing the nuclear launch codes or whatever. They don't care about the drugs. They care about the risk the person's life presents. Lying presents that risk.
posted by Jairus at 5:13 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you want to get an idea, by the way, of the crazy fucking shit that people can do and still get security clearances, take a look at the DoD Security Clearance Decisions archive.

Note how people who were once excessive drug users can get clearance but people who lied about smoking pot once cannot.
posted by Jairus at 5:17 PM on May 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

Everyone I've every known who has worked for the feds has been advised to never lie on these things. Remember that it's not the act itself that will burn you down, but the cover-up.

They don't care about the drug use unless it is very recent* or current. They care about the lying.

*And even then - a friend some years back was applying to a Federal law enforcement agency, and had smoked weed in the year previous to her application; she fessed up, they advised waiting a year, she did, reapplied, got accepted.
posted by rtha at 5:53 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I doubt there are any pics on the net of her taking bong hits, or bragging about this stuff

Even if she were certain about there not being any evidence, it's still not a safe bet. The background checks I have been subject to asked for references. The investigators then asked those references for references and then asked those references for references. Unless your daughter is 100% certain everyone she has ever been around ever in her entire life will absolutely say she has never ever used anything illegal ever, she should be honest.

In other words, she should be honest. Good luck to your daughter!
posted by Beti at 6:15 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another thing to be aware of is that in their vetting process, they may not only talk to people your daughter gives as character references. It's a fairly common procedure for them to call those people, and then ask those references for other people as well. So it gets to the point where your daughter wouldn't be able to control who the vetters are talking to. Which means it's best just not to lie.
posted by lunasol at 6:16 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

When you say notarized do you mean it's a sworn declaration? If so, even more reason to be honest. Swearing to tell the truth and then lying under oath is about rock bottom in my opinion.
posted by HoteDoge at 7:32 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hi, I've held a very basic security clearance while in the Army and I also was recently hired by a local police agency, requiring an extensive background investigation. I've smoked pot and taken hallucinogenic mushrooms in the past. Always tell the truth. Always always always. Always. Once a person is caught in a lie, EVERYTHING they do or say thereafter, FOREVER, is suspect. Agencies that do backgrounds and clearances prize honesty and forthrightness above almost everything else.
posted by kavasa at 8:37 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Another vote for tell the truth, absolutely. Be as detailed and specific as they request during interviews. They will likely ask her who also knows about her usage; those people will not get in trouble but do need to be honest (she should contact anyone she knew who knows she used and reiterate her need for their honesty).

The point here is that by being honest she is not blackmailable.

Also tell her to talk to her security officer about her concerns/questions; if she's at the clearance stage, she will have been assigned one.
posted by bookdragoness at 1:37 PM on May 17, 2014

I actually (yes REALLY) have never done any illegal drugs, taken prescription drugs without a prescription, taken more over the counter drugs than dictated to on the label, never even smoked cigarettes, I probably had the equivalent of 2 glasses of wine total before I turned 21 in the form of sips here and there, and have never gotten so much as a parking ticket. I really am actually super clean.

During my interview they HAMMERED me on that fact. Asking me probably 20-30 questions about drug and alcohol use. My friend who also had to interview (and who has some past minor drug history and admitted to it on the form) said they asked like 2-3 follow up questions and moved on.

I say this to show that it is honesty is the best policy, they don't care about past drug use, they care about lying. And apparently there really aren't that many squeaky clean people out there, it kind of made me wish I had something to admit.
posted by magnetsphere at 1:49 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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