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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against employees and applicants with disabilities in organizations that employ 15 or more employees. The term "disability" means an individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities or there is a record of such an impairment or an individual is regarded as having such an impairment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) oversees application of the ADA. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities by contractors and subcontractors with the Federal government. The requirements regarding drug and alcohol use under the two laws are identical.


The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 affect drug and alcohol policies. Individuals currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs are not "individuals with a disability" when the employer acts on the basis of such use. "Currently" means that the illegal use of drugs "occurred recently enough to justify the employer’s reasonable belief that involvement with drugs is an ongoing problem."


The following is a brief outline of aspects of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that are related to employees who have problems with drugs and alcohol:

  • Employers may prohibit the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol in the workplace.
  • The ADA is not violated by tests for illegal use of drugs (but remember to meet state requirements).
  • Employers may discharge or deny employment to persons who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs.
  • Employers may not discriminate against drug addicts who are not currently using drugs and have been rehabilitated or have a history of drug addiction.
  • Employers may not discriminate against drug addicts who are currently in a rehabilitation program. (The EEOC has clarified that a rehabilitation program includes inpatient or outpatient programs, Employee Assistance Programs, or recognized self-help programs such as Narcotics Anonymous.)
  • Reasonable accommodation efforts, such as allowing time off for medical care, self-help programs, etc., must be extended to rehabilitated drug addicts or individuals undergoing rehabilitation.
  • A person who is an alcoholic may be an "individual with a disability" under the ADA.
  • Employers may discipline, discharge or deny employment to alcoholics whose use of alcohol impairs job performance or conduct to the same extent that such conduct would result in disciplinary action for other employees.
  • Employees who use drugs and alcohol may be required to meet the same standards of performance and conduct set for other employees.
  • Employees may be required to follow the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and rules set by Federal agencies pertaining to alcohol and drug use in the workplace.
  • The ADA does not protect casual drug users; but individuals with a record of addiction, or who are erroneously perceived as being addicts, would be covered by the guidelines.

The Job Accommodation Network, a free service of DOL's Office of Disability Employment Policy, provides accommodation ideas and fact sheets for Drug Addiction and Alcoholism and also offers a Video that addresses legal issues related to the ADA and substance abuse in the workplace.


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