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Updated on July 17, 2023
7 min read

What is the ‘California Sober’ Approach to Sobriety?

What Does “California Sober” Mean?

The term “California Sober” means that someone is partially sober. The goal is harm reduction, as opposed to complete sobriety. Depending on the person discussing the concept, there are different interpretations of what “partial” means.

Who Coined the Term “California Sober?”

According to the Los Angeles Times, “California Sober” was first used in print by journalist Michelle Lhooq in her 2019 article in Vice. She claimed to have given up most recreational drugs except marijuana and psychedelics, calling herself “Cali sober.”

The term gained popularity when pop star Demi Lovato released the song “California Sober” in 2021 after suffering a near-fatal opioid overdose in 2018. 

In an interview, Lovato told a CBS Sunday Morning reporter that she was drinking and smoking small amounts of marijuana and said, “I feel the complete abstinent method isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody.”1

California Sober vs. Traditional Sobriety

California Sober differs from traditional sobriety because sobriety typically means abstaining from all substances.

When someone is California Sober, they might indulge in small quantities of the substance with which they have a problem. Or if they are an alcoholic, they might avoid only alcohol and indulge in marijuana use. 

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How Does California Sober Work?

In general, California Sober means limiting drug or alcohol use to a specific quantity, quality, and/or substance to ensure that you don’t feel awful after consuming the substance.

In many cases, marijuana is considered acceptable for being California Sober. Proponents of this version of California Sober state that marijuana carries less risk than alcohol and other addictive substances.

Others expand the concept to cover other drugs, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, or LSD, none of which are considered addictive. Sometimes, the term describes drinking alcohol occasionally and possibly including other drugs.

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Marijuana can lead to marijuana use disorder, which can be an addiction in severe cases. Recent data shows that 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder.2

However, as more states legalize marijuana and/or hemp-based CBD products, some Americans are embracing the concept of California Sober. They can legally indulge in substances without developing a hangover as with alcohol.

Is a California Sober Lifestyle Healthy?

The health benefits of California Sober depend on the individual’s approach to adopting this approach. Additionally, the degree and nature of someone’s addiction play a role.

For some people, California Sober is too flexible. Giving yourself permission to have a single drink or indulge in a drug can open the door to unlimited alcohol misuse.

For others, even a flexible restriction is enough to help them curb heavy drinking or avoid alcohol in favor of something they consider less detrimental.

Criticisms of California Sobriety

Critics point out that California Sober is nothing more than trading one vice for another. As mentioned above, marijuana misuse can lead to addiction.

The same is true if you stop drinking but develop a shopping or gambling addiction. Critics also believe that the version of California Sober that embraces occasional drinking could lead to relapse if someone has a substance use disorder.

What Do Addiction Specialists Say About California Sober?

Addiction specialists’ primary concern regarding the California Sober approach is the slippery slope. The concept behind the slippery slope is that one event or action will lead to more extreme events or actions.

The California Sober approach creates a slippery slope that could lead to more drinking. For many, an intoxicant helps with withdrawal, but it might also trigger a craving for another drug.

For those who substitute marijuana and other drugs for alcohol, there are risks associated with those drugs. Marijuana is still illegal in many states.

There are also health risks associated with marijuana, including:

  • Altered senses
  • Changes in mood
  • Impaired body movement
  • Difficulty with thinking and problem-solving
  • Impaired memory and learning
  • Hallucinations and paranoia
  • Breathing problems
  • Possible harm to a fetus’s brain in pregnant women3

Benefits and Risks of Being California Sober

Potential benefits include:

  • Can lead to a healthier lifestyle if you’re drinking too much
  • Allows you to indulge in what some people consider less-risky substances
  • Can help you avoid hangovers and other risks associated with alcohol

Potential risks include:

  • Some people use it as an excuse not to live a sober life
  • You’re still indulging in substances, some of which might have health risks
  • Creating a slippery slope to full-blown relapse or addiction

Detractors say California Sober is an excuse not to live a sober life. People who choose California Sober still indulge in substances. California Sober is not for people who believe sobriety is a black-and-white issue.

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Case Study: Demi Lovato and California Sober

Pop star Demi Lovato is one of the people who made the concept of California Sober mainstream. Although Lovato admits to no longer being Cali Sober, she originally embraced the idea.

What Triggered Demi Lovato’s Relapse?

It’s possible that Lovato’s relapse was linked to the California Sober approach. Following ongoing struggles with drugs, alcohol, and long-term recovery, Lovato described her recovery as California sober.

According to Lovato, “I think the term that I best identify with is California sober. I don’t feel comfortable explaining the parameters of my recovery to people because I don’t want anyone to look at my safety parameters and think that’s what works for them; it might not. The complete-abstinent method isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody.”4

How Has Demi Lovato’s Approach to Sobriety Evolved?

By the end of 2021, Lovato did not embrace Cali Sobriety. In December, Lovato shared the updated outlook on her Instagram account, claiming to now be entirely sober. “I no longer support my ‘California sober’ ways… Sober-sober is the only way to be,” said Lovato.

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Is California Sober Right for You? Evaluating Your Options

California Sober isn’t right for everyone. If you’re battling addiction, the best thing you can do is to speak to a mental health professional.

Alternatives to California Sober include:

  • Giving up drinking completely
  • Limiting alcohol consumption to specific occasions to reduce overall consumption
  • Entering an inpatient or outpatient facility 

Common Questions About “California Sober”

Is “California Sober” recommended for everyone?

No. California Sober won’t work for everyone. This is especially true for people who have severe issues with substance use. In most cases, California Sober is an option for anyone who wants to reduce the amount of alcohol they’re drinking without embracing complete sobriety.

Can marijuana be a safe alternative in a “California Sober” lifestyle?

It depends. 

Many people believe marijuana is safer than alcohol, but this isn’t the case for everyone. There are different risks associated with the drug, especially if you smoke marijuana.

However, using marijuana doesn’t trigger hangover symptoms that alcohol tends to. Users won’t experience any physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. However, marijuana use can lead to the development of problem use or marijuana use disorder. It is addictive in severe cases.2

How does addiction affect the brain?

Addiction has a significant impact on the brain. It stimulates and interferes with the brain’s balance. The brain adjusts quickly to maintain balance and creates a new balance set point. The creation of this new balance is known as “allostasis”. This adaptive behavior triggers changes in the normal function of the brain.

What are the risks and potential benefits of a “California Sober” lifestyle?

The risk of choosing California Sober over complete sobriety is that it can act as a gateway to the overuse of alcohol. For many, it’s the first step of relapse, and it isn’t long until they are misusing alcohol again.

The benefit of California Sober is that many people can use it to cut down on how much alcohol they’re consuming. This method can be very effective if the goal is to drink less.

Summary

If you’re considering California Sobriety, it might be time to address a deeper issue. Anyone with a history of substance use is likely better served by seeking professional advice regarding alcohol and/or drugs.

At the very least, speaking to a professional addiction counselor can help you understand your drinking habits better. They can also help you determine the best approach to reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption and/or whether or not you have an opioid use disorder.

Updated on July 17, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on July 17, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Abcarian, R. “Is “California Sober” a Real Thing or an Excuse to Keep Getting High?” Los Angeles Times, 2022. 

  2. “Is Marijuana Addictive?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020.

  3. Cannabis (Marijuana) DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019.

  4. Pawlowski, A. “Demi Lovato Is “California Sober”: What It Means and Why It’s Controversial.” TODAY, 2021.

  5. Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018.

  6. Health Effects of Marijuana.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021.

  7. What Is California Sober?” Cleveland Clinic, 2021.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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