Substance abuse counselors work closely with individuals struggling with addiction to alcohol or drugs. They also work with families to heal the damage caused by addiction. This type of counseling is highly sensitive, highly important, and highly rewarding for the professionals who take their jobs seriously.

Since addiction is a widespread problem, substance abuse counselors are in demand across Colorado. There were 1,510 of these counselors in the state in 2014, but by 2024 that total is projected to rise to 2,090, an increase of 37%. That is much higher than the projected growth in demand nationally, making Colorado a great place to pursue a new career. This overview covers everything you need to know about the substance abuse counselor licensure requirements in Colorado.

Types of Licensure in Colorado

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The Colorado Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) provides management and oversight to the Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC) Clinical Training Program. The OBH also establishes the standards necessary for all substance abuse counselors in the state. The Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs (DORA) is the agency that actually regulates counselors in the state. It offers official credentials at four levels:

Certified Addiction Counselor Level 1 (CAC1)

This is defined as an entry-level to give new counselors on-the-job experience while limiting their contact with clients.

Certified Addiction Counselor Level 2 (CAC2)

This is essentially a full substance abuse counselor with the right to practice independently and offer a full range of services with the exception of clinical supervision.

Certified Addiction Counselor Level 3 (CAC3)

This level allows counselors to work independently and to take on clinical supervision duties.

Licensed Addiction Counselor (LAC)

This level is made up of counselors with the highest levels of education and experience. Having a graduate degree is the primary prerequisite.

Becoming a CAC1

The requirements to become a CAC1 are relatively minimal since this is the entry level of the profession. Anyone eager to start their career or explore the field of counseling without making a major commitment should pursue this certification level:

Education Requirement

Earn a high-school diploma or equivalent.

Work Requirement

Complete 1,000 of clinically supervised work experience. This experience must be supervised by a CAC3 or higher and cannot occur within less than six months.

Training Requirement

Counselors must complete 112 hours of specialized training offered through the OBH. That training breaks down as follows:

  • Addiction Counseling Skills – 12 hours
  • Client Record Management – 14 hours
  • Principles of Addiction Treatment – 21 hours
  • Professional Ethics 1: Ethics and Jurisprudence – 14 hours
  • Culturally Informed Treatment – 14 hours
  • Infectious Diseases in Addiction Treatment – 14 hours
  • Pharmacology 1 – 14 hours

Additional Requirement

All counselors must pass an Online Jurisprudence exam and submit the test results to DORA. Taking the exam again is not necessary for certification/license renewal, but it is required whenever counselors move up in rank. The exam covers the following topics:

  • General Mental Health Statutes
  • Confidentiality and Privilege
  • Prohibited Activities/Violations
  • Board Rules
  • Emergency Procedures
  • Disciplinary Provision/Proceedings

Becoming a CAC2

The requirements to become a CAC2 build on the requirements to become a CAC1. As a result, most counselors in Colorado earn the initial certification while working to become a full counselor at the CAC2 level:

Education Requirement

Earn a high school diploma or equivalent.

Work Requirement

Complete 2,000 hours of clinically supervised work experience under a CAC3 or higher. This is in addition to the 1,000 hours earned at the CAC1 level, meaning CAC2s have at least 3,000 hours of experience. The additional hours cannot be earned in less than 12 months.

Training Requirement

After completing all the training required at the CAC1 level, counselors must complete an additional 126 hours of training:

  • Professional Ethics 2 – 14 hours
  • Motivational Interviewing – 21 hours
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – 14 hours
  • Group Counseling Skills – 21 hours
  • Pharmacology 2 – 14 hours
  • Clinical Assessment and Treatment Planning – 14 hours
  • Co-Occurring Disorders – 14 hours
  • Trauma Informed Care for Diverse Populations – 14 hours

Exam Requirement

Pass the National Certified Addiction Counselor Level 1 exam offered by the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC).

Additional Requirement

Pass an Online Jurisprudence exam.

Becoming a CAC3

Counselors with this level of certification are permitted to work in a clinical supervisory capacity. As a result, they must have all the credentials of a CAC1 and CAC2 plus meet a number of additional requirements:

Education Requirement

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree with a focus in Behavioral Health Science. Typically, majors in social work, psychology, or human science satisfy this requirement while majors in sociology, nursing, or criminal justice do not. Any major must include an intense focus on the following elements:

  • Psychology
  • Behavioral Science
  • Social and Cultural Factors Affecting Mental Health
  • Tools of Behavior Theory
  • Research and Assessment Models
  • Program Planning
  • Counseling

Work Requirement

Complete a total of 2,000 hours of work experience supervised by a CAC3 or higher. This must be done after completing the work requirements at the previous level, meaning CAC3s have a minimum of 5,000 hours of experience.

Training Requirement

After completing all the training required at the CAC1 and CAC2 levels, counselors must complete an additional 56 hours of training:

  • Clinical Supervision 1 – 21 hours
  • Advanced Motivational Interviewing – 14 hours
  • Clinical Supervision 2 – 14 hours
  • Professional Practice – 7 hours

Exam Requirement

Pass the National Certified Addiction Counselor Level 2 exam.

Additional Requirement

Pass an Online Jurisprudence exam.

Becoming a LAC

Only the most experience and expert substance abuse counselors are granted a license in the state of Colorado. This is typically a rank that counselors achieve after working their way through all the previous ranks:

Education Requirement

Earn a clinical behavioral health master’s or doctoral degree. A degree with a focus in any of the following areas is considered acceptable:

  • Community Counseling
  • Human Services Counseling
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Counseling Psychology
  • Human Psychology
  • Clinical Social Work
  • Psychiatric Nursing/Advanced Practice Nursing
  • Addictionologist – Addiction Medicine

Work Requirement

There is not a specific work requirement to become a LAC, but these counselors must meet the same standards as all CAC3 counselors, meaning that at least 5,000 hours of clinically supervised work experience is required. However, if a counselor already has an applicable master’s degree or doctorate when first beginning to purse certification they are only required to complete 3,000 hours of supervised experience.

Training Requirement

Complete all the training course (and the prerequisites) required at the CAC3 level. However, if a counselor already has an applicable master’s degree or doctorate they are allowed to take an expedited training course:

  • Principles of Addiction Treatment – 21 hours
  • Infectious Diseases in Addiction Treatment - 14 hours
  • Pharmacology 1 – 14 hours
  • Motivational Interviewing – 21 hours
  • Groups Counseling – 21 hours
  • Pharmacology 2 – 14 hours
  • Professional Ethics – 14 hours
  • Clinical Supervision 1 – 21 hours
  • Clinical Supervision 2 – 14 hours
  • Advanced Motivational Interviewing – 14 hours

Exam Requirement

Pass the Master Addiction Counselor Exam

Additional Requirement

Pass an Online Jurisprudence exam.

Renewing a Certificate or License in Colorado

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All CAC2, CAC3, and LAC credentials expire on August 31 of odd numbered years, meaning they must be renewed every two years. The renewal period begins six weeks prior to the expiration date. In order to be eligible for renewal, counselors must complete prescribed amounts of professional development. That requirement can be satisfied in several ways:

  • Participate in the State Board of Addiction Counselor Examiners’ Continuing Professional Development (CPD) program. This program is designed to help counselors identify their professional weaknesses, develop a learning plan, then pursue learning opportunities targeted to the counselor. By the end, counselors should have the 40 hours of professional development required to be completed every 2 years.
  • Participate in the DEEM program if you hold multiple mental health licenses. In order to keep multiple renewal requirements from overburdening mental health professionals, the amount of hours required is reduced depending on the number and type of licenses held.
  • Apply for a military exemption. Any counselor called to federal military service for more than 120 consecutive days may apply to have the required amount of professional development either reduced or waived.

Professional Associations in Colorado

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There are a number of professional associations in Colorado either directly or indirectly related to substance abuse counseling. Joining, following, and participating in these organizations is a great way to develop skills, make connections, and develop professionally:

  • Colorado Association of Addiction Counselors
  • Colorado Counseling Association
  • Advocates for Recovery
  • Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council
  • Colorado Drug Free Workplace Alliance
  • Mental Health America of Colorado
  • Peer Assistance Services