Substance Abuse Counselor Certification

As an important part of the nation's health care system, substance abuse counselors are trained professionals who help individuals and their families address the misuse of alcohol, drugs and other substances. They may work independently to provide one-on-one counseling or be part of a larger team of care providers. Either way, in order to do their jobs properly, individuals may need to meet substance abuse counselor licensing and certification requirements.

Educational requirements for substance abuse counselors

Entry-level substance abuse counselor positions may be open to some with a high school diploma and on-the-job training. However, these positions may be quite limited and restrict individuals to monitoring treatment plan compliance and little else.

With a specialized degree, substance abuse counselors may have the opportunity to move into positions allowing for greater responsibility and potential for growth. However, undergraduate degrees cannot be used for private practice. Instead, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) reports all states require substance abuse counselors be licensed if they want to provide independent counseling in private practice.

Licensure requirements may vary by state, but the BLS says they typical include a graduate degree, supervised experience and a written exam. The following represent the minimum needed for most state licensing

  • Master's degree (some states may require a specific degree program)
  • 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work
  • Passage of licensure exam
  • Annual continuing education

Once licensed, a substance abuse counselor can work independently or move into leadership roles such as that of a supervisor or director.

Benefits of substance abuse counselor certification

In addition to licensure, some states may have a certification ladder for substance abuse counselors working in their jurisdiction. These ladders specify different designations based upon an individual's education and experience.

For example, the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals offers the following designations which build up to state licensure.

  • Registered Student
  • Registered Recovery Worker
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor Associate
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Level I
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Level II

California also has specialty certifications for those who want to be a Certified Clinical Supervisor, California Certified Prevention Specialist, Certified Criminal Justice Addiction Professional or a Women's Treatment Specialist.

Other states may have their own certification ladder as well as laws defining the scope of practice for counselors based upon their current state designation.

Beyond state programs, voluntary certification is also available through professional organizations. Most notably, the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals offers the following three credentials.

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I: This certification is available to those who have a current state certification or license and have completed three years or 6,000 hours of supervised work as a substance use disorder counselor. Applicants must also pass a written exam before being certified.
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II: Level two counselors must have at least a bachelor's degree, current state licensure and five years or 10,000 hours of supervised experience as a substance use disorder counselor. As with Level I, there is a written exam requirement as well.
  • Master Addiction Counselor: This level of certification requires a master's degree in the healing arts or a related field along with three years or 6,000 hours of supervised experience. Applicants must possess current state licensure or certification and pass a written exam as well.

Once earned, these credentials may help make individuals more attractive to potential employers, increase opportunities for promotion and open doors to managerial positions.

For more information on substance abuse counselor licensing and certification, contact your state licensing board. Schools offering substance abuse counselor degree programs may also be able to provide information on state requirements and voluntary certification programs.


Certification, The Association for Addiction Professionals, http://naadac.org/certification

Scopes of Practice & Career Ladder for Substance Use Disorder Counseling, NAADAC, September 2011, http://www.addictioncareers.org/addictioncareers/resources/documents/PEP11-SCOPES.pdf

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm#tab-1

With CCAPP, Career is Your Journey, California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals, https://www.caadac.org/ladder/

Substance Abuse Counselor Schools