What Is California Sober and Is It Dangerous?

California sober is a controversial term in the recovery community. It refers to the casual use of marijuana, and potentially alcohol and psychedelics, but never hard drugs. Many people have opinions about this approach to substance use. It may work for some, but it also comes with serious risks, especially for anyone who has struggled significantly with any type of addiction. No one should try the California sober strategy without talking to their trusted addiction counselor, therapist, or recovery facility.

Singer Demi Lovato recently put the term ‘California sober’ in the spotlight, but it isn’t new. Lovato has struggled with addiction, including a close call with an overdose. During an interview, when asked her current state of sobriety, they stated, “I think the term that I best identify with is ‘California sober.’”

Lovato’s admission stirred up debate, controversy, and many questions. Many people had never heard the term or knew what it meant. Others could relate, also being California sober. But many more people, experts included, expressed concern over a celebrity promoting this potentially risky attitude toward drug use.

What Is California Sober?

According to Urbandictionary.com, California sober is a well-known term in the harm reduction community. It most commonly refers to abstaining from drugs and alcohol with one exception: marijuana.

Some expand or shift that definition to include psychedelic drugs or even alcohol in moderation. In other words, it means avoiding the most harmful drugs, like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription opioids.

California sober is often included as a branch of harm reduction, which is the idea that abstaining entirely from drugs or alcohol is not always the answer. The philosophy of harm reduction is to reduce the negative consequences of using drugs in particular. That can include providing clean needles to heroin users, for instance, or helping people use in moderation.

Is California Sober Really Sober?

Technically, in the language of addiction science, this is not true sobriety. To be sober means to completely abstain from any mind-altering, often habit-forming, substance. This includes alcohol, marijuana, and psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin, even if they are less addictive and less harmful than so-called hard drugs.

This type of “sobriety” is mislabeled. It is more accurate to call it a form of harm reduction or moderation management. Those who use this strategy try to manage their addiction, not with abstinence but with moderation and by avoiding the worst drugs.

What Are the Risks of Being California Sober?

For many in the addiction and recovery community, the idea of California sober is wrong. Many ascribe to the philosophy of total abstinence and believe there is no other way to recover from an addiction to any substance.

It may not be possible to truly answer the question of whether or not California sober is a valid strategy for managing addiction. However, it definitely comes with certain risks. If you or a loved one is considering going California sober, consider the potential problems:

  • It may trigger riskier behaviors. Drinking or using marijuana in moderation is safe for most people. But if you struggle with addiction, these can be triggers for a serious relapse. They may cause cravings and lead you to use a harder drug or to binge in a way that isn’t healthy. It can be a slippery slope for a lot of people. One study of marijuana use in people with alcohol or substance use disorders found that it didn’t help. It reduced their chances of abstaining from their problem substances.
  • Behavioral addiction is real. Marijuana has nowhere near the addictive power of other drugs, or even alcohol, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a no-risk drug. Even if you don’t develop a chemical addiction to it, which is possible, marijuana use can lead to a behavioral addiction. This means you feel a psychological or emotional need to use the drug, even if you don’t have physical cravings or withdrawal symptoms. A behavioral addiction is damaging and tough to beat.
  • These drugs have risks, too. Alcohol, in particular, is a dangerous substance. It lowers your inhibitions, increases the risks of accidents and violence, and contributes to long-term health risks like heart disease and cancer. Smoking marijuana is less harmful than cigarettes, but it still comes with risks and potential consequences. Psychedelics are not addictive but may be risky for anyone with a mental illness that causes psychosis, like schizophrenia.
  • Casual substance use is not a fix. Many people turn to drugs or alcohol to fix a problem, to relax after a stressful day, to ignore dealing with difficult emotions or situations, or to manage mental health symptoms. The problem with this is that it never fixes the actual problem. Managing mental illness, emotions, and stress takes real work, time, and effort. Using marijuana or alcohol casually, just to cope with these things ignores the real, underlying issues.
  • It sends a dangerous message. Everyone is different. Some people can be California sober with little to no risks or harm. Others cannot. Many experts and people in recovery dislike the term because it sends a message that casual substance use is not dangerous. For too many people it is, and this false assumption can lead to real harm, even deaths.

Ultimately, the problem with California sober is that it implies the drug user or drinker is in control, not the substance. Not everyone can handle this. If you can control your intake and are not actively addicted, you may describe yourself as California sober. But as soon as your behaviors cross back into addiction, it’s over.

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Can Anyone Benefit from it?

A major problem with California sober is that it simply contains a lot of unknowns. Research is limited. Studies of a moderation management—a type of harm reduction—approach to alcohol does indicate it can be useful for some people, but mostly those who don’t yet have a serious substance use disorder.

The benefit of being “California sober” is most likely to work for someone who has never had to deal with addiction. It may be helpful in avoiding alcohol for personal reasons or curbing escalating substance use, for instance. For addicts and those who have worked through addiction, though, the benefits are mixed and uncertain and the risks high.

Should I Try California Sober?

Some people may be suited to this lifestyle, but it’s risky for anyone who has struggled with addiction. For many, it’s simply too risky to try. Before you even consider attempting California sober after going through professional care, talk to your therapist or counselor. Don’t make this decision alone.

It’s also a good idea to talk to trusted loved ones. In some ways, they understand you better than you know yourself. Also consider the fact that using again doesn’t only affect you. If it goes wrong, it will also hurt your loved ones.

California sober is trending, but it’s a complicated topic. Avoid taking it at face value. Don’t assume it’s harmless or works for everyone just because you hear celebrities talking about it. Consider the risks, confer with your therapists, and talk to loved ones.