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The certification/licensure process varies by state.  Some states license or certify substance abuse counselors directly. Some direct them to a third party certification agency. There are similarities in the process regardless of whether the state issues the credential directly or entrusts an outside agency. Full certification requires experience. In some cases, you will hold an entry-level credential while you accrue your experience. Other requirements include education, examination, and character screening.

A high school diploma or GED is the minimum requirement, though some boards set standards higher. In most states, lower level certifications do not require a college degree. However, states do require a set number of related education hours; some will be addiction-related, others counseling-related. In many cases, you have the option of completing your hours through formal academic coursework or continuing education. To obtain your National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I), you need only a GED, but you’ll also need at least three years full-time or 6,000 hours of supervised experience as a Substance Use Disorder/Addiction counselor. This is a voluntary national certification. Having this shows clients, employers, and colleagues your commitment to quality care.

State licensing is a separate process from national credentialing or certification. Here’s a synopsis of 5 states that employ the most substance abuse counselors (in brackets), per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2016). These are their respective educational requirements:

  1. California (9,050): The Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California awards the Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATC I) credential to those who have completed programs that are accredited by the California Association for Alcohol/ Drug Educators (CAADE) or deemed equivalent. Candidates must accrue 2,240 hours in a state-licensed facility. Candidates also must take and pass the Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATC) Exam.
  2. New York (7,600): A candidate will need 350 clock hours of education and training that develop addiction counseling competencies. These hours are divided into specific areas: substance abuse, alcoholism, clinical evaluation, treatment planning, tobacco usage and others.
  3. Pennsylvania (6,730): The minimum qualification requires an associate’s degree in chemical dependency, counseling, psychology, social work, or related field. The Certified Associate Addiction Counselor (CAAC) must have 300 hours of education that is relevant to addiction counseling
  4. Massachusetts (5,010): An individual may be licensed as a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor I (LADC) on the basis of a master’s or doctoral degree from an institution with national or regional accreditation. The degree must be in the behavioral sciences. The graduate must have at least 18 semester hours of counseling or related subjects. Additionally, the LADC candidate must complete a program of study that includes at least 270 hours that address a “full range” of concepts related to alcohol and drug counseling.
  5. Florida (4,440): Applicants may achieve Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC) status with a high school diploma or GED. CAC must have at least 250 hours of training relevant to the job role. Education must include at least 60 hours each in 1) understanding addictions and treatment and 2) professional readiness/ application to practice. Professional readiness curriculum must include two hours of domestic violence training and four hours of HIV/AIDS, regardless. The experience requirement is 6,000 hours for a trainee with education at the high school level, 4,000 for one with an associate or vocational degree.

Therefore, there are opportunities for applicants with a high school education to launch their career in addiction counseling. The caveat is that there are thousands of mandated hours to make up for the lack of a college/university degree. As referenced, Massachusetts requires the minimum of a master’s degree. Partakers of this approach have several top online master’s programs in addiction counseling to chose. Your level of education will go a long way toward determining your scope of practice and the level of autonomy you will have.