Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

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

Substance abuse counselors have received specialized training in counseling and 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 a minimum level of education, training, and skill. 

Typical employers of substance abuse counselors include hospitals, inpatient and residential treatment centers, government agencies, nonprofits, and clinics. Counselors are expected to 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 very 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, an increasing number of sentences require strict substance abuse counseling. This change has been one of the driving factors in increased demand for substance abuse counselors. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), there is an anticipated 23 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2020 and 2030, which translates into 75,100 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 what a typical career path looks like and a detailed list of state licensure requirements.

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How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol

The path towards 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 (Two to Four 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 for 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 the program they attend 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 hours or six months and 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
California

California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators (CAADE)

California Association of DUI Treatment Programs (CADTP)

California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP)

There are three main certifying agencies for California. They are California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators (CAADE), California Association of DUI Treatment Programs (CADTP), and California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP).

CAADE’s Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California (ACCBC) offers six levels of Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor (CATC) certification. Initial CATC certification requires:

  • A completed substance abuse counselor certificate or degree program in alcohol and drug studies or addiction from an accredited institution (at least 30 semester credits)
  • 2,240 hours of supervised clinical work experience in substance abuse counseling
  • Passing score on the CATC Exam
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • A completed application
  • $185 application fee

Increased education allows candidates to earn higher levels of certification. There is a $50 fee to upgrade a certification. Education requirements are:

  • CATC I-30 Unit Community College Alcohol and Other Drug Certificate
  • CATC II – Associate Degree
  • CATC III – Bachelor’s Degree
  • CATC IV – Master’s Degree
  • CATC V – Doctoral Degree
  • CATC N – Nursing Degree

CADTP issues a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Counselor certification. The requirements are:

  • A $75 registration fee
  • Signed code of conduct/ethics
  • Copy of a driver’s license
  • 2×2-inch photo
  • A completed nine-hour orientation course

Within five years, SUD counselors must complete:

  • 315 hours of formal SUD related education
  • 2,080 hours of related work experience, of which 160 hours of supervised practicum
  • The IC&RC ADC exam with a passing score

Increasing work experience and education can allow counselors to pursue more advanced SUD certification and even supervisor credentials.


CCAPP certifies Registered Alcohol Drug Technicians (RADT), Certified Alcohol Drug Counselors at three levels (CADT), and Licensed Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselors (LAADC).


To earn RADT certification, candidates must:

  • Complete a nine-and-a-half-hour orientation course in ethics
  • Submit a RADT application
  • Sign the California SUD Counselor Code Of Conduct
  • Sign a RADT Scope of Practice
  • Pay $50 application fee

CADT certificate applicants must meet RADT requirements, as well as:

  • Complete 315 of hours approved, AOD specific education
  • Complete 255 of hours supervised practicum work experience
  • Pass the IC&RC ADC Written Exam
  • Complete 3,000 hours of supervised work experience
  • Pay $100 portfolio processing fee and $150 exam fee

CADT-II requires 6,000 hours of work experience or a bachelor’s in behavioral science or allied mental health profession and 4,000 hours of work experience.


CADT-III requires a bachelor’s in behavioral science or allied mental health profession and 4,000 hours of work experience.

LAADC certificate candidates must meet the RADT and CADT requirements, in addition to having:

  • A master’s degree in behavioral science or allied mental health profession with 300 hours of substance use disorder specific education including six hours of ethics
  • 4,000 hours of work experience
  • A passing score on the IC&RC AADC Written Examination

CAADE requires its counselors to renew their certificates every two years. Renewals cost between $35 to $200 and must be accompanied by 40 continuing education hours. Nine hours must be in addiction-specific laws and ethics.

CADPT renewals are due annually for SUDs who are completing their education requirements. They are required to submit:

  • Registration Renewal Form Completed
  • A $25 renewal fee
  • Three hours of Ethics Training and three hours of confidentiality training
  • Signed Code of Conduct and Ethics
  • Proof of progress towards certification within the last 12 months

CADPT SUD counselors who have full certification are required to recertify bi-annually by submitting the following:

  • Certification Renewal Form
  • Uniform Code of Conduct
  • CADTP Code of Ethics
  • 40 hours of continuing education, including three hours of ethics and confidentiality
  • Renewal fee of $125 for SUDCC; $150 for SUDCC II or SUDCC III; $175 for SUDCC III-CS, SUDCC IV, or SUDCC IV-CS
  • CCAPP renewals are due every two years. Requirements to renew include the following:

    • Renewal application
    • 50 hours of continuing education units, including six hours in ethics and confidentiality (Not required for RADTs)
    • Signed CCAPP Code of Conduct for Credentialed Alcohol and Drug Professionals
    • Signed State of California AOD Counselor Code of Conduct
    • Signed Scope of Practice form
    • $125 fee

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 2021), there are 310,880 addiction counselors employed in the US, including those in mental health counseling and behavioral disorders. The average pay per year is $53,490. Salaries can vary based on where the addiction counselor works, job descriptions, and education. National pay percentiles were:

  • 10th percentile: $30,870
  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile (median): $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Substance Abuse Counselor – Drug & Alcohol Professional Associations & Resources

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

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.