Substance Abuse Counselor Certification in the District of Columbia

DC addiction counselors are certified by a governmental entity. They are under the jurisdiction of the Board of Professional Counseling; the Board operates under the banner of the DC Department of Health. There are three major components: education, supervised practice, and examination. Certification is based partly on standards of the Association of Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). However, the Washington DC certification process and the NAADAC certification process are not identical. DC sets academic requirements higher.

An academic degree is required. There are two substance abuse counselor certifications: Certified Addictions Counselor I (CAC I) and Certified Addictions Counselor II (CAC II). The two credentials are distinguished by degree level.

A substance abuse counselor’s role can include a number of functions including intake, orientation, case management, and referral. Professionals who hold only addiction counseling certification (and do not hold mental health credentials) have limits on their scope of practice.

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Education and Training Requirements

A Counselor I has education at the associate's level while a Counselor II has education at the bachelor's level. Whatever the level, the degree is to be in a health or human services discipline. Among the degrees that can be accepted are health education, mental health, aging studies, registered nursing, and criminal justice.

State regulation identifies topics that must be included. Among them are the following:

  • Understanding human behavior and family system dynamics
  • Substance abuse signs and symptoms
  • Ethics
  • Professional identity
  • Crisis intervention
  • Diagnostic and screening criteria
  • Co-occurring disorders/ interdisciplinary treatment
  • Cultural factors
  • Psychopharmacological resources

There are additional content requirements related to the recovery process, relapse prevention, and related topics. Requirements for this content are higher at the Counselor II level than the Counselor I level. Board regulation includes required topics and educational hours.

Required coursework that is not part of a degree program must be taken through an accredited college or university or through a NAADAC-approved training provider. The Department of Health refers applicants to the NAADAC website for a list of NAADAC-approved training institutions (

International education can be accepted following review by an approved evaluation agency.

Experience and Supervision Requirements

Washington DC requires 500 hours of supervised experience at the Counselor I level, 180 hours at the Counselor II level. There are particular types of activity that must be included at each level. The Board has set minimum hours in each. A trainee at the Counselor II level will, for example, need to spend at least ten hours engaged in treatment planning with clients.

An individual who has completed an associate or baccalaureate degree in the recent past will not be certified but will still be held to Board standards. Supervision paperwork must be submitted soon after experience commences. In most cases, a graduate is expected to meet the supervision requirement and apply for certification within one year. In some cases, the timeline may be extended; the supervisee will need to demonstrate good cause.

A Counselor I or Counselor II will not practice independently even after certification is awarded. DC regulations describe supervision requirements – and requirements for moving up the career ladder to supervisor. Supervisors may be advanced practice addiction counselors or professionals who hold licensing in other qualifying disciplines. They will need to hold a qualifying certification or meet experience requirements.

Examination Requirements

CAC certification is by examination. The District of Columbia utilizes examinations developed by NAADAC. The required examination is NAADAC Level I at the Counselor I level, NAADAC Level II at the Counselor II level. The NAADAC website includes information about examination content (

An applicant at either level will also need to take the District of Columbia jurisprudence exam. It covers NAADAC ethics as well as DC statutes and rules. A study guide is included in the application forms section of the website.

The Application Process

Applicants apply before all requirements have been met. Examination applicants will include their NAADAC results if they have already taken the qualifying exam. Otherwise they will receive approval after application review. Approval to sit for the state jurisprudence exam will also be granted after review. This is required of all applicants.

Application materials can be downloaded from the website of the Department of Health (

Applicants should include official transcripts in sealed envelopes; these should show the degree granted. The licensing department will also look for documentation of further training, as applicable, from the NAADAC-approved provider.

A background check is required. Fingerprints can generally be made electronically using the approved DC vendor. The Department of Health has outlined several options (

The licensing department has provided a course form and supervised experience form for each level.

A $240 fee is due at the time of application. An applicant who must apply for re-examination pays $85.

Certifications are renewed every other year. Addiction counselors complete at least 40 hours of continuing education every two years. The Board has set some coursework mandates.

Additional Information

Information about substance abuse counseling certification is available from the DC Department of Health ( Application questions can be directed to Customer Service at 877-672-2174. Regulations are available online (

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