Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

Alcohol and drug abuse devastates those who suffer from it and their friends and families. Over 21 million Americans have at least one kind of addiction, with only 10 percent receiving treatment. The consequences of substance abuse disorders annually include 88,000 deaths due to alcohol, more than 47,000 deaths due to opioids, and more than 14,000 deaths due to heroin (Addiction Center 2022). Overcoming addiction is an uphill battle because of chemical dependency and psychological issues. Substance abuse counselors are critical to helping clients find and maintain sobriety. 

Substance abuse counselors have received specialized training in counseling, the intricacies of substance abuse disorders, and the techniques to help clients succeed. Certification and licensure are available in every state to ensure counselors in this field have minimum education, training, and skill. 

Typical employers of substance abuse counselors include hospitals, inpatient and residential treatment centers, government agencies, nonprofits, and clinics. Counselors must provide screening, assessment, treatment, counseling, and referrals to help clients meet their therapeutic goals. 

Education requirements for substance abuse counselors vary based on certification or license, job description, or place of employment. At a minimum, counselors in this field must graduate from high school or have a GED. Earning an undergraduate degree is common, leading to more advanced certification or licensure and better job prospects. The most advanced certificates and licenses require graduate degrees. 

There has been a shift in some states in the treatment of alcohol and drug offender. Instead of requiring long jail times, increasing sentences require strict substance abuse counseling. This change has been one of the driving factors in the increased demand for substance abuse counselors. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023), there is an anticipated 18 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2022 and 2032, which translates into 71,500 new jobs (including those in mental health counseling and behavioral disorders).

The path to becoming a substance abuse counselor varies by state. Keep reading to learn a typical career path and a detailed list of state licensure requirements.

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Ask an Expert: Teri Wilder, LMHC

Teri Wilder is a licensed mental health counselor (LHMC) who has 13 years of experience in major mental illness, as well as addiction counseling, coping skills, and stress. Teri has worked with teens and adults who are dealing with many concerns that vary from family dynamics, work-related concerns, eating disorders, personality disorders, and ADHD.

She holds two master’s degrees in mental health and counseling and is currently pursuing her PhD in counseling education and supervision at Capella University. 

Counseling Schools: What is something you wish the public understood about substance abuse counselors?

Wilder: Substance abuse counselors have an important, but difficult job. They are often at the front lines of treatment and working with individuals who aren’t just struggling with substance abuse disorders, but working with individuals who also struggle with mental health difficulties and/or major trauma. Individuals can have long-standing use histories that include the use of substances as a form of self-treatment for pre-existing conditions and untreated mental health concerns. 

The challenge of a substance abuse counselor is to focus on the underlying reason for use—not just the use itself—and be able to focus on establishing coping skills, treating trauma, breaking habits and patterns, establishing a sense of safety within treatment, and focusing on family relationships that the substance use has impacted. 

Sometimes, substance use counselors work with other licensed professionals to ensure that treatment meets all of the needs of the individual and requires extensive knowledge of psychopharmacology, medication-assisted treatment protocols, and knowledge of harm-reduction therapy in substance treatment.

Counseling Schools: What advice would you give to aspiring counseling students who want to become substance abuse counselors?

Wilder: To become a substance use counselor, it is helpful to take as many addictions-based courses as you can in your program or a secondary program. This will help you establish knowledge in evidence-based practices and harm-reduction techniques. Still, also, you will want to continue that education after you graduate through CEU programs and training. The field of substance use treatment is always growing and evolving with new types of treatment and techniques.

Another thing that can be helpful is to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally through your own individual therapy first. Substance abuse treatment is not for the faint of heart as it will challenge you in different ways and has a high risk of death and overdose in clients served. It is literally a “life-or-death” field of service and one in which sometimes a tough love approach is utilized. 

It can also be a highly rewarding field, both monetarily and with client successes, but there can also be a number of client failures or deaths. This can be hard to deal with and hits you where it hurts, but that is why we fight every day for the lives of our clients. It can be hard for new counselors and clinicians to want to work with substance abuse clients due to feeling unprepared. Seek out the education and mentorship that you need for it, but also know it can easily become a passion due to seeing the severity of need in the field today. Every counselor is needed, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of experience.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

The path toward becoming a licensed or certified substance abuse counselor varies widely by state. Detailed state requirements can be found in the following section.

Here are the most common steps required:

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

All substance abuse counselor certificates and licenses require applicants to graduate high school (or have obtained a GED). Students who want to pursue this career can start their education while still in high school by focusing on classes such as psychology, social sciences, biology, English, and math. Work experience can be gained by volunteering in the substance abuse counseling field.

Step 2: Obtain an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree (2-4 Years; Optional)

While a degree is not required in every state for a career as a substance abuse counselor, it can help aspiring professionals obtain more advanced certification or licensure and with job advancement. The most commonly earned degree in this field is addiction counseling, although degrees such as psychology, counseling, chemical dependency counseling, and other behavioral sciences can suffice. Some states require specific coursework, so students should check with their local board to learn the requirements. 

Students should ensure their program is accredited, as most states won’t accept degrees from unaccredited institutions. The program should be regionally accredited by an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education (USDE). Completing a program accredited by an entity such as the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) is required in some states.

Step 3:  Complete a Master’s Degree (Two Years; Optional)

The most advanced substance abuse counselor certificates and licenses require applicants to have a master’s degree or higher. A master of science (MS) in addiction counseling is the most common degree for this field. There are numerous online master’s programs and on-campus options with flexible schedules, which allow students to pursue higher education in this field while still balancing work or family.

Step 4:  Complete Required Education (Varies by State)

Many states have specific education requirements for substance abuse counselors. These hours can range from 180 to over 300. Often, these hours can be completed as part of a degree program, but sometimes they are in addition to education already obtained. Most education requirements also have specific coursework to be completed, so prospective professionals should familiarize themselves with their state’s requirements.

Step 5: Complete Supervised Work Experience (Timelines Vary)

Depending on the level of certification or license, applicants can be required to complete supervised work experience. Trainee, intern, and associate licenses and certifications are often required to begin earning these hours. Requirements vary by state but can be as few as 1,000 or six months, 6,000 hours, and three years. The number of hours required varies based on the level of certificate or license pursued.

Step 6: Pass Required Exams (Timelines Vary)

Exams for substance abuse counselors are required in almost every state. Not all levels of certificates and licenses require testing. The most common tests required are the Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) exam from the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) or the National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I) from the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP), in association with the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). 

More advanced licenses and certifications can require the Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (AADC) exam from the IC&RC or the National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II), or the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) from the NAADAC. Many states also require candidates to pass a jurisprudence exam.

Passing an exam from IC&RC offers license and certificate reciprocity to other states that offer the same credential. 

Step 7: Apply for Certificate or Licensure (Timelines Vary)

Once degree, education, work experience, and examination requirements have been met, candidates may apply to their local board for certification or licensure. Processing time can vary widely, and applicants must wait to practice as a substance abuse counselor until they have received notification of approval. 

Licensing & Certification Requirements By State for Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

State Licensing Authority Eligibility & Details Renewal Requirements

Virginia Department of Health Professions Board of Counseling

The Virginia Department of Health Professions Board of Counseling issues Certified Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC) and Certified Substance Abuse Counselor Assistant (CSAC-A) credentials to substance abuse counselors.

CSAC-A credential candidates must:

  • Graduate from high school or a have a GED
  • Complete 120 hours of education in substance abuse counseling in 13 specific areas
  • Have 180 hours of supervised work experience with clients who have a substance use disorder
  • Submit a completed application
  • Pay $115 license fee
  • Pass the Virginia State Constructed CSAC-A exam

CSAC credential candidates must:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree
  • Submit a completed application
  • Pay $65 application fee, $115 license fee, and $175 exam fee
  • Pass the Virginia State NCAC Level I exam
  • Have the Verification of Supervision form submitted by each supervisor, which verifies a total of 100 hours of supervision, 2,000 hours of work experience in substance abuse, and 160 hours of experimental tasks
  • Complete 240 hours of education in substance abuse counseling in 13 specific areas

Substance abuse counselor licenses in Virginia expire annually on June 30th. CSAC renewal fees are $65 and CSAC-A fees are $50.

CSACs are required to complete 10 hours of continuing education each year and CSAC-As are required to complete only five.

What Do Substance Abuse Counselors (Drug & Alcohol) Do?

Substance abuse counselors are employed at government agencies, clinics, hospitals, outpatient treatment centers, nonprofits, and residential treatment programs. Most substance abuse counselors are trained to provide services based on 12 core functions. 

Duties can vary based on place of employment, level of license or certification, or job description, but they typically include:

  • Providing patient screening
  • Performing a thorough client intake 
  • Giving clients program orientation
  • Assessing patients’ therapeutic needs through one-on-one counseling sessions
  • Writing treatment plans to help clients meet their therapeutic goals
  • Counseling clients in individual and group settings
  • Providing regular case management to ensure clients access all the services they need to be successful
  • Offering crisis intervention when necessary 
  • Educating clients and family members on substance abuse disorders
  • Referring clients to other providers when necessary
  • Maintaining client records
  • Consulting with other substance abuse counselors or health professionals to provide the best care possible

How Much Do Substance Abuse Counselors (Drug & Alcohol) Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022), there are 344,970 addiction counselors employed in the US, including those in mental health counseling and behavioral disorders. The average pay per year is $56,230. Salaries can vary based on where the addiction counselor works, job descriptions, and education. National pay percentiles were:

  • 10th percentile: $34,580
  • 25th percentile: $39,810
  • 50th percentile (median): $49,710
  • 75th percentile: $64,400
  • 90th percentile: $82,710

Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol Professional Associations & Resources

  • American Addiction Centers
  • American Counseling Association (ACA)
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
  • Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC)
  • Center on Addiction
  • International Association of Addictions & Offender Counselors (IAAOC)
  • International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC)
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


At, Kimmy Gustafson’s expertly crafted articles delve into the world of counseling and mental health, providing valuable insights and guidance to readers since 2020. In addition to feature pieces and interviews, she keeps the state licensing tables current. Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.