Substance Abuse Specialist

Substance abuse specialist careers range in scope and responsibility, as varied as the total number of careers available in the substance abuse field, but all striving toward one important goal: to help individuals overcome substance abuse, dependency, and addiction disorders. For more information refer to addiction recovery.

The role of a substance abuse specialist depends on the specific needs of organizations focused on helping clients and their families navigate through the recovery process.

What does a Substance Abuse Specialist Do?

Specialists can work directly with substance abuse counselors, facilitating treatment through therapeutic group activities, or maintaining records and documents. They also work as intake coordinators at inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment centers, gathering information and also providing community and professional referrals for clients and their families.

Many work in the criminal justice system, providing individual and group counseling to inmates with drug abuse and addiction problems. Within prisons, correctional facilities, and halfway houses, substance abuse specialists deliver drug education programs.

Some substance abuse specialists administer eligibility and psycho-social assessments, which counselors and other professionals use for designing individual treatment programs. Specialists with state licensure and accreditation qualifications counsel individuals and families in private settings, or run self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Overall, the type of responsibilities for substance abuse specialists depend on individuals’ level of education, training, certification and licensure credentials. Jobs for these professionals in the criminal justice system often require a bachelor’s degree in behavioral or social sciences , such as sociology/social work, or psychology, plus some hands-on experience leading groups in a substance abuse treatment center.

Specialist vs. Counselor

Positions for specialists in substance abuse treatment centers typically require a master’s degree in a human-services related area, and many also require state certification and licensure, including several hours of additional training often earned through internships. These positions parallel substance abuse counseling positions. In fact, many organizations interchange the two terms “counselor” and “specialist” in their job titles.

Other Substance Abuse Specialists

Other professionals who qualify as substance abuse specialists are psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, such as marriage and family therapists (MFTs), who have certification and licensure in their respective fields, but earn additional specialization in treating substance abuse disorders. They take additional coursework either through two or four-year colleges, through online classes, or through continuing educations classes. Some decide to pursue additional certification in substance abuse counseling as well.

These individuals also spend the majority of their professional careers devoted to working with individuals and families on substance abuse and addiction problems and issues.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Specialist

If you have a desire to help individuals and families work through and overcome issues of substance abuse and addiction, a career as a substance abuse specialist provides a path to reach your career goals. A bachelor’s degree is required to get started in the field, and some positions require master’s degrees and state certification and licensure. Request information from schools offering degrees in substance abuse counseling, and inquire about classes, specializations, and certificates in substance abuse and behavioral disorders.

Sample Job Requirements For a Substance Abuse Specialist Position at a Correctional Facility

Job title: Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment Specialist


  • U.S. Citizenship required.


  • Provide individual and group counseling or therapy to inmates with drug and alcohol abuse problems.
  • Responsible for the education of prison staff about drug and alcohol abuse, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, and the local prison program.
  • Administer eligibility and psycho-social assessments as the basis for individual treatment planning. Conduct other assessments and tests as needed or recommended by the Drug Abuse Program Counselor or Coordinator.
  • Under the supervisions of a counselor or coordinator, administer treatments and interventions to offenders diagnosed with a drug use disorder.
  • Advise the counselor or coordinator on the scheduling of groups, training opportunities, and supplies and materials needed for the program.
  • Attend weekly supervision sessions and discussion of client caseload.
  • Document data, such as treatment groups, treatment contacts, treatment progress and treatment plans.

Qualifications required:

  • Degree that includes at least 24-semester-hours of courses in the behavioral or social sciences.

Education to meet 24-semester-hours:

Courses such as sociology, correctional administration, criminal justice, political science, psychology, social work, counseling, and other related social or behavioral science courses may be used to satisfy the 24-semester-hour requirement.


Applicant must show experience in (1) casework in a correctional institution or in another criminal justice setting; or (2) counseling in any setting, provided it required diagnostic or treatment planning skills to achieve specific social or occupational goals; or (3) work treating individuals in social rehabilitation settings.

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