How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor in California

Substance abuse counselors help clients identify issues that lead to addiction and propose solutions. They work with individuals one-on-one or in small groups. Through education, they can specialize in a particular drug addiction or age group. Experienced counselors often return to the classroom as teachers so they can pass on their experience and wisdom to the next generation. Their vital work plays an essential role in California, the most populous state in the U.S.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for substance abuse counselors should grow by 23% through 2026. California residents should have little trouble finding employment after earning their degrees and certifications. Impressive projected job growth suggests that opportunities for career advancement should also increase significantly.

Use the information and resources in this article to learn more about how to become a substance abuse counselor in California.

Counseling License and Career Requirements in California

Explore more pathways to becoming a counselor in California here

Education and Experience Requirements

Education and experience requirements vary depending on the certification substance abuse counselors pursue. Currently, five agencies in California award certifications to substance abuse counselors. The following sections describe the academic and experience requirements for each certification type.

Academic Requirements

The five certification agencies for California substance abuse counselors set different education requirements:

Most California counselor boards require additional education if professionals need an advanced license to practice. Initial licenses allow counselors to start gaining professional experience, which many California chemical dependency boards require for advancement. This article describes the experience requirements in greater detail in a later section.

Interested in pursuing an education in substance abuse counseling? See the following pages to learn about counseling academic programs by level:

Substance Abuse Counseling Coursework

California counselor boards award the most in-demand certifications to applicants who have a bachelor's or master's degree. Typical bachelor's programs require 120 credits and feature coursework in foundations of cultural competence and ethics in substance abuse counseling. The best programs include multiple practica and internships so that students can start gaining the required professional experience.

Master's programs typically require 45-48 credits, and full-time students can earn these degrees in two years. Master's programs boast specializations that allow students to customize their education. Since many master's students already work in addiction counseling, they can complete practica and internships at their job sites.

Practicum and Supervised Practice

Substance abuse counselors often need at least one year of professional experience before they qualify for certification. California counselor boards reduce the experience requirement for candidates who possess advanced degrees. In practica, internships, and entry-level positions, candidates undergo supervised training and document all work experience. After graduating from a substance abuse counselor program, candidates have five years to finish any work experience requirements.

The Exam and Application Process for California Substance Abuse Counselors

Exam requirements vary by certification. Some organizations use the same exams, while others administer unique ones. Use the following links to learn the latest information about exam requirements for California's five certification boards:

California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators

American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders

Breining Institute

California Association of DUI Treatment Programs

California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals

Organizations requiring exams often provide test preparation resources for candidates. Test requirements (e.g., test center, time limits, etc.) also vary.

Beyond meeting education and exam requirements, candidates must complete other benchmarks, including a training course and criminal background check. For certifications requiring supervised experience, candidates must submit official documentation. Candidates pay an application fee regardless of which certification they pursue. Applications for initial licensure take 4-8 weeks to process.

After graduating from a substance abuse counselor program, candidates have five years to finish any work experience requirements

Once counselors obtain licensure, they can seek lucrative employment opportunities and start gaining the required experience for recertification or certification advancement. This article discusses substance abuse counselor certification maintenance and renewal requirements in a later section.

Out-of-State Substance Abuse Counselor Candidates

Out-of-state substance abuse counselors should research how to become a counselor in California if they plan to relocate.

Certifications That Transfer Seamlessly

Professionals who possess certifications from the Breining Institute or the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders can practice in California without additional testing or education. The three other California chemical dependency certification boards require additional steps.

Certifications With Reciprocity Regulations

The California Association for Drug/Alcohol Educators does not accept out-of-state certifications. The California Association of DUI Treatment Programs boasts a generous reciprocity program wherein out-of-state counselors can transfer their licenses. Finally, the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals grants licensure reciprocity as long as candidates meet professional experience and continuing education requirements.

Substance Abuse Counselor License Maintenance and Renewal Requirements

Substance abuse counselor certification maintenance and renewal requirements vary by certification. The California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP) requires professionals to complete 50 hours of continuing education (CE) courses every two years. As CCAPP awards multiple licenses, some professionals complete different courses to renew or advance their certifications.

always check with the certification board to learn its latest application and renewal requirements

Professionals who earn a certified addiction specialist credential from the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders renew their licenses every year by completing 20 CE hours in ethics, communicable diseases, special populations, and other topics.

Regardless of which certification you plan to pursue to become a California chemical dependency counselor, always check with the certification board to learn their latest application and renewal requirements.

Resources and Organizations for Substance Abuse Counselors in California

Besides the five California counselor boards, the internet boasts multiple resources on how to become a counselor. From professional organizations to forums, these websites contain excellent information on how to make your career goals a reality.

  • American Academy of Grief Counseling Grief can cause individuals to turn to drugs to cope, and as a result, substance abuse counselors should know how grief and addiction interact. The AAGC provides members and nonmembers with the latest information on grief counseling best practices.
  • American College Counseling Association Substance abuse counselors-in-training should consider joining ACCA. Student members pay approximately half the standard membership fee and receive membership benefits, including webinars awarding CE hours.
  • American Counseling Association ACA represents counselors in all specializations. ACA members receive a host of benefits, including reduced rates on CE and free publications. Student members pay a reduced membership fee and can access a career center offering individualized advice.
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine ASAM represents over 5,000 physicians, nurses, and counselors who treat patients with addiction. The society's local chapters allow members to participate in in-person networking events. Professionals who complete additional training through ASAM can become an ASAM Fellow.
  • The Association for Addiction Professionals Besides offering many nationally recognized certifications, NAADAC provides its members with valuable benefits, including free CE courses and discounts on professional publications. The association awards scholarships to graduate student members performing original research in addiction counseling.
  • Certificate Program in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies This University of California - Berkeley program helps professionals earn an initial substance abuse counselor certificate. Experienced counselors also use this program and others to learn the latest counseling best practices.
  • Department of Health Care Services This California state government agency oversees Medi-Cal, a low-cost health insurance program for residents in need. Visitors to the HCS website can research the latest laws and regulations about substance abuse counselors and how to become a counselor in California.
  • International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors IAAOC advocates for and researches addiction counseling best practices, specifically for counselors who work with incarcerated individuals. Members can take CE courses at no additional charge.
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers For more than 40 years, the NAATP has helped addiction professionals provide better care to their patients. All members receive invitations to the association's annual conference. Other membership benefits include a private job board and retirement planning advice.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration A division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, SAMHSA publishes the latest research in addiction science and prevention. Graduate students and professionals can apply for grants through the SAMHSA website.

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