People Are Going ‘California Sober’ –– But What Does That Even Mean?

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
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Demi Lovato recently discussed her sexuality (she’s “really queer” y’all and so am I so we are pretty much besties now) and plenty of other truths in her newly released documentary called “Dancing With The Devil,” which was released on YouTube on March 23rd. And because she’s amazing and famous, folks are now offering their opinions on what she shared and how she lives her life. Lovato has been open about her addictions, overdoses, and efforts to get and stay sober; she’s been an inspiration to many people. But when she recently described herself as “California Sober,” folks weren’t comfortable with the term or her use of it for her recovery plan.

According to Urban Dictionary, when someone is “California Sober” the only drugs they use are marijuana and sometimes psychedelics. It’s becoming a growing trend for folks who want to drink less but still want to use other substances that may not give them the negative side effects of booze. CBD, medical, and recreational marijuana use is on the rise as more states pass laws that legalize its use. Folks tend to appreciate the benefits without the hangover effects of harder drugs and alcohol.

A semi-sober person from Colorado told Real Simple, “When I drink, even if it’s just a glass of wine or two with dinner, I definitely notice that my quality of sleep goes down. If I skip the booze and take a few hits of my cannabis vape pen instead, I sleep like a baby and wake up feeling refreshed.”

The concept of California sober isn’t new, but the phrase is catchy. Folks who participate in Dry January or who call themselves “Sober Curious” will refrain from alcohol for many reasons. Some see it as a simple detox or health exploration while others fear their relationship with alcohol is toxic or addictive. But refraining from alcohol doesn’t make someone sober if they still partake in other substances. While it can be a healthier lifestyle for some people, being California Sober is not full sobriety.

This is why people argue that you can’t call yourself sober if you are still drinking and drugging. As an alcoholic who has been in recovery for four years, I would agree. Attaching the word sober to anything other than, well, sober feels false.

Patrick Cronin, addiction specialist with Ark Behavioral Health, says that this lifestyle could be detrimental to Lovato’s and anyone’s sobriety if they are in recovery. Cronin told Distractify that when addicts choose to be California Sober, “they are absolutely risking relapsing on their drug of choice.” I understand this and see the risk, but I don’t completely agree with this statement for every person.

Being in recovery doesn’t necessarily mean being sober. Everyone’s recovery is different, and it’s nobody’s business to push their path onto someone else or judge the path someone else is taking to live a manageable, fulfilling, and happy life.

For Lovato and others who are trying to cut out substances that make their lives unmanageable, recovery is about balance and finding the right plan to keep you away from relapsing on the substance or addiction that has taken over your life. Lovato allows herself to have alcohol and marijuana in moderation. She is also very clear that this is a decision she made with her recovery case manager and isn’t recommending her recovery plan for anyone else.

My recovery means abstaining from all substances. While I didn’t have a problem with pills or marijuana, I know they can make me high and help me escape in the same way I abused alcohol. For me, it would have been swapping one substance for another, so other than my prescribed medications, I don’t use any mind altering substances. Okay fine. Caffeine. I do a lot of coffee.

I know plenty of folks in recovery who are sober from the vice that got them into rehab or recovery in the first place but who will still occasionally have a glass of wine, smoke weed, or do other recreational drugs. They fully admit they are not always sober, and while I do worry about that approach, it’s not my place to shame them. I reach out, check in, and even suggest they check in with a sponsor or therapist, but ultimately, everyone’s journey is different, and just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t for someone else.

Lovato acknowledges this. In an interview on CBS Sunday Morning, she says, “I don’t want anyone to look at my parameters of safety and think that’s what works for them, because it might not. I am cautious to say that, just like I feel the complete abstinent method isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody, I don’t think that this journey of moderation is a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody, too.”

Opinions vary on being California Sober while also being in recovery. I’m not a professional substance abuse counselor, a sponsor, or expert on anyone’s life but my own, and even then I’m not totally sure what I’m doing. But I know it takes honesty, support, and readiness to start a path to recovery and sobriety. I and many others don’t recommend a California Sober lifestyle to addicts, but I also know that for some it works. And I hope it works for Lovato.

What I do recommend is that everyone takes stock of their relationships with drugs and alcohol and then talk to a mental health provider, doctor, or addiction counselor with concerns. Know that you are not alone and there is help available.

If you or someone you love needs help, call SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-662-4357or use their Services Locator to find support for mental health and substance use disorders in your area.

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