Learn / California Sober: What Is It and What Does It Mean for Addiction Recovery?

California Sober: What Is It and What Does It Mean for Addiction Recovery?

Hannah Friedman
 May 26th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • California sober is a contraversial form of harm reduction.
  • Those who practice it avoid "hard drugs," but may still use natural or "soft" drugs.
  • It does not set a standard for sobriety, and has potential benefits as well as risks.

What does it mean to be “California sober?” This is a relatively new idea in addiction recovery. And while some people swear by it, it’s certainly not right for everyone.

What Does it Mean to Be California Sober?

“California sober” is a relatively new term in addiction recovery. It’s not a clinical term, and it has a very loose definition. Singer Demi Lovato popularized it when they described using marijuana and alcohol during recovery from opioid and stimulant addiction1 after a nearly fatal overdose:

“Telling myself I can never have a drink or smoke marijuana is setting myself up for failure because I am such a black-and-white thinker. I had it drilled into my head for so many years that one drink was equivalent to a crack pipe.”

Some people say being California sober means only using marijuana while abstaining from alcohol and other drugs. Other people say that it’s using marijuana in addition to psychedelics or natural drugs like kratom or kava. Some people in recovery for alcohol addiction may still drink in moderation and consider that as being California sober. The term means vastly different things to different people.

On the other hand, traditional sobriety is the complete abstinence from all alcohol and drugs. It’s much more strict than being California sober. However, even if you take this approach to recovery, there are some gray areas. For instance, people using medication-assisted treatment (MAT) still qualify as traditionally sober if they’re only taking medications that treat addiction.2 

Abstinence is a popular approach to recovery in 12-Step programs and most residential rehabs. And studies show that while traditional sobriety isn’t the only way to recover from substance abuse,3 people who remain abstinent from all drugs and alcohol often report a better overall quality of life. 

California Sober as a Form of Harm Reduction

Harm reduction interventions,4 like being California sober, aim to reduce the harmful consequences of substance abuse. So with this approach, you might limit the number of daily drinks you have instead of quitting alcohol entirely. The goal is sustainability, not total abstinence.

Moderation means different things to different people. Some replace “hard” drugs like methamphetamines, opioids, or stimulants with “soft” drugs like marijuana, natural psychedelics, or alcohol. The belief is that these natural drugs are safer5 than synthetic drugs. However, that’s not necessarily true.

Does Going “California Sober” Work?

Many people think “soft” drugs are automatically safe.6 And it’s true that drugs like marijuana typically have a lower risk of overdose and other negative effects. But they’re not entirely harmless. 

Every substance has the potential to be addictive—even marijuana. Over time, any type of substance use hijacks your brain’s reward system. Experts believe that addiction to one drug might even make you more sensitive to other drugs. If that theory is correct, then going California sober might just increase your risk of developing a new addiction.

Is Marijuana a Better Alternative?

Despite what many people think, you can become addicted to marijuana. In fact, studies show that about 30% of people who use marijuana become dependent on it.7 You may feel more irritable, less hungry, or even experience cravings for up to 2 weeks if you quit using marijuana.  

Some data also suggests that marijuana might be a gateway drug.8 One study found that adults who used marijuana were at a much higher risk of alcohol addiction. Whether because of social pressure or brain chemistry, cannabis use might make it harder to abstain from drinking.

On the other hand, marijuana’s health effects may help some people reduce their use of other drugs. For example, marijuana is a powerful painkiller.9 Some doctors are using it to decrease patients’ need for opioid medications. Experts note that this treatment can “dramatically lower opioid use and can provide pain relief.”  If you’re in recovery from opioid addiction, going California sober might be extremely helpful.

The Downsides of Being California Sober

“Soft” drugs can harm your mental and physical health just as much as “hard” drugs. Regularly using marijuana can have a variety of harmful effects:10

  • Lung irritation, illness, and infections for people who smoke
  • Increased heart rate, which raises your risk of heart attack
  • Severe nausea and vomiting 
  • Paranoia
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Worsened symptoms for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, especially schizophrenia 

It’s also common for people who are California sober to use psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, which is found in mushrooms. And while many people believe that these drugs are completely safe, both psilocybin and LSD can cause mental health symptoms:11

  • Panic attacks
  • Increased delusions
  • Flashbacks to negative experiences
  • Impaired memory

Alcohol also causes serious long-term physical health effects:12

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer, including mouth, liver, and colorectal cancer
  • Alcohol-associated hepatitis and cirrhosis
  • Stroke
  • Reduced bone density 

Natural drugs like kratom and kava can also cause long-term harm13 to your body. For example, long-term use of kava can damage your liver14 and kidneys. It can also exacerbate any pre-existing mental health symptoms.

No Set Standard of Sobriety

Each California sober person in recovery gets to decide which drugs they can use, when, and how often. And because it isn’t set in stone, you may find yourself changing your definition of sobriety to slowly include more and more frequent drug or alcohol use. This flexibility can become a slippery slope back toward addiction. Traditional sobriety sets strict boundaries around alcohol and drugs that may be more difficult to cross. 

Increases Your Risk of Relapse

George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains that the California sober trend may trigger relapse:15

“I think substituting one intoxicant for another has a lot of dangerous pieces to it. What if you decided to smoke marijuana and then decided to drink a little alcohol? An intoxicant can help with withdrawal, but it can also act as a cue and trigger craving for a drug.”

Your risk of relapse is especially high16 if you used to drink or smoke marijuana while using more dangerous drugs. For example, if you would typically drink and use cocaine at the same time, drinking in recovery may trigger your cravings for cocaine.  

Doesn’t Address the Root Cause of Your Addiction

Trauma is a common cause of addiction.17 Being California sober might still enable you to self-medicate the symptoms of trauma, just with “softer” drugs. You might continue to seek out substances or behaviors that help you cope with triggers. This can be less harmful than using “harder” drugs—but it’s even better to address the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Potential Benefits of California Sober

While there are risks to practicing moderation, being California sober may benefit people seeking more grace in their recovery. 

Reduced Stigma

Recognizing that success is a spectrum can reduce the amount of stigma18 you experience in recovery. Some abstinence-only programs teach that relapsing is a sign of failure. However, most people relapse 3-4 times19 before finding long-term success. 

Dr. Brian Hurley, director-at-large for the American Society of Addiction Medicine, explains: 

“I’m less interested as an addiction physician in focusing on whether somebody is completely abstinent from every substance ongoing forever, and I’m more interested in: How have their lives changed in response to treatment? How are their behaviors improving?” 

According to harm reductionist philosophy, any positive change is a success.20 Being California sober means not punishing yourself for very normal parts of recovery, like relapse and cravings. Instead, it can help you embrace the challenges of healing. 

More Support and Access to Treatment

Many rehabs require clients to be abstinent21 from all substances. For some people, this can be a barrier to treatment. Data suggests that if people with severe addiction can access free and immediate treatment, many will still refuse because they don’t want to be totally abstinent. 

Studies show that moderation-based treatment plans can be effective for long-term recovery,  compared to abstinence-only programs. For example, people recovering from alcohol addiction are more likely to drink more heavily during a relapse than people practicing moderation. Being California sober can teach you how to manage your drinking, which may help you continue to drink at a healthier level. 

Expert Opinions on Going “California Sober”

Many experts in the field of addiction recovery critique the idea of being California sober. Some, like addiction treatment administrator April Marier, say it’s just ineffective. Marier compares the trend to “switching seats on the Titanic22 — it’s not going to save you; you’re still going down.” 

Others, like addiction specialist Ken Seeley, say the very idea could be harmful to other people in recovery:  

“I think the term ‘California sober’ is quite disrespectful to the sober community.23 I know a lot of people that work really hard to hold their abstinence and fight for their lives in recovery, and to bring up this new term, ‘California sober’ is so inappropriate.”

But some addiction experts, like Dr. Marlene Martin, see the benefits of being California sober.24 Everyone should have support in reaching their personal recovery goals, Martin says: 

“For some people, it’s reducing, for some it’s discontinuing, for some people it might be harm reduction—not getting HIV or not overdosing. There are lots of ways people who use drugs can improve their health and well-being.”

Choose the Sober That Helps You the Most

Everyone’s pathway to recovery is different. Even if you wouldn’t seek treatment that requires abstinence, you can still heal from addiction. However, if you need to set stricter boundaries around drug use, traditional sobriety may be more achievable. 

Recovery can also be a fluid process. You don’t have to decide everything in advance. Even Demi Lovato says that they are now “sober sober,”25 because being California sober stopped working for them. But other celebrities continue to practice this type of moderation. There’s no one right way to heal.

You have the right to decide what healing means to you

Connect with a residential rehab program to learn more about your options for recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions About Being “California Sober”

What does it mean to be “California sober?”

Being “California sober” means that people avoid “hard” drugs like cocaine, opioids, or stimulants with “soft” drugs like marijuana, natural psychedelics, or alcohol.

What are the risks of being “California sober?”

“Soft” drugs like marijuana or natural psychedelics can harm your mental and physical health, and can still be addictive. Because there’s no set standard for sobriety, it can be a slippery slope back toward addiction.

Is being “California sober” a form of harm reduction?

Yes, being “California sober” is a harm reduction approach. It aims to reduce the harmful consequences of substance abuse by limiting the number of daily drinks or drug use instead of quitting entirely. The goal is sustainability, not total abstinence.

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