Let’s Address the Whole ‘California Sober’ Thing and What It Actually Means
Demi Lovato caused quite a stir when she announced in a recent interview on CBS Sunday Morning that she is “California sober.” In 2018, Lovato experienced a near-fatal drug overdose after years of battling with addiction. Now, she’s at a new phase in her recovery, which begs the question – what is California sober?
What it means to be California sober.
California sober is a slang term that typically refers to people who abstain from heavier drug use and only use marijuana, although some will incorporate psychedelics in that list as well. Rarely does California sober include alcohol, as it seems to with Demi Lovato.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That does’t sound like sobriety to me.”
And you would be right.
She’s not sober. Smoking weed and drinking alcohol does not a sober person make – plain and simple.
Sure, California sober sounds cool and trendy, but it’s a complete misnomer. A dangerous one at that.
What is harm reduction?
A more accurate phrase for what Lovato and thousands of others are opting into is harm reduction.
Harm reduction is defined as, “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”
It is an alternative approach to recovery and addiction treatment that allows for safer drug use, managed use, meeting people “where they’re at,” and a host of other intervention strategies that aim to support drug users in ways that produce the least amount of harm.
The National Harm Reduction Coalition sites eight guiding principles for harm reduction implementation:
- Accept that drug use is part of our world and we should work to minimize its harmful effects.
- Drug use and addiction are multi-faceted, complex issues that encompass a wide range of behaviors.
- Success is defined by improving the quality of life for individuals and communities, not by total cessation of drug use.
- We should offer non-judgmental and non-coercive services to people who use drugs.
- Allows for drug users to have a voice in policy decisions that affect them.
- Affirms people who use drugs as the primary agents of reducing the harm of their drug use.
- Recognizes that racial, socio-economic background, gender-identity, past trauma, class, and other social inequalities affect people’s ability to deal with their drug use and recovery.
- Harm reduction does not attempt to minimize the harm or dangers of illicit drug use.
Can you be sober and still use?
For me, the answer is absolutely not.
Yes, Demi Lovato’s current drug use is significantly less harmful than what she was doing in the past. You could say that she is managing her drug addiction using harm reduction principles, and you could also have an opinion on the efficacy of that choice.
But she’s not sober and we shouldn’t encourage the phrase “California sober” to become a thing any more than it is.
Is marijuana ‘using’?
Here’s where California sober gets interesting for a lot of people, myself included. I don’t smoke weed or ingest edibles, mostly because weed makes me fall asleep and not much else. But when it comes to my sobriety, I can see multiple sides of the slippery slope argument.
There are so many medical uses for marijuana and a growing body of evidence that micro-dosing weed or psychedelics can help manage mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
What about recreational use? Is that sobriety? I would say no. But I also think it’s the wrong question.
What is sobriety anyway?
Marijuana, CBD, Kratom, and Kava can become slippery slopes. The issue of sobriety boils down to whether you are using any substance as a crutch to avoid dealing with your life.
Purists will say that any substance that can alter your brain chemistry violates sobriety. Under that definition, I would not qualify as sober. I take antidepressants and drink Kava tea (albeit a very mild brand).
When it comes to alcoholism, I believe that people who abused alcohol should abstain from it.
Our brain chemistry is altered in such a way that we can’t drink without eventually falling back into addiction. There are some unicorns who manage it, but I have to wonder about the effort it must take to achieve moderate drinking after addiction and don’t want alcohol ever taking up that much real estate in my brain again.
People who substitute alcohol with marijuana are also doing themselves a disservice by checking out of the recovery process. But it could be a method of harm reduction for certain individuals.
Is the latter example sobriety? No. A better question is, “Does it have to be?”
It is possible to abuse and become dependent on marijuana. It is also, arguably, less harmful than alcohol.
So if you use, but don’t abuse, marijuana is that okay? And does addiction to alcohol mean something like marijuana is completely off-limits?
Studies suggest that individuals in alcohol recovery who use marijuana are more likely to relapse and drink again, but only for individuals who use marijuana 1-2 times per month.
We’ll address this topic more in the future.
The dangers of using terms like California sober.
Using in moderation is not sobriety, even if the behavior stands in stark contrast to your previous drug use. The reality is that for people suffering from alcoholism and other addictions, the desire to moderate often leads back to heavy, dangerous using.
If we were capable of moderating our drinking, we wouldn’t have wound up where we did.
It’s the same line of thinking that gained popularity back in 2019 when “new sobriety” became a thing and people were publicly claiming sobriety but still drinking occasionally.
It devolved into this messy back and forth about the semantics of sobriety and people feeling entitled to claim it in ways I found deeply uncomfortable and, frankly, dangerous.
Droves of influencers discovering that rarely drinking alcohol improves their overall quality of life is great. But trying to rebrand sobriety as a lifestyle choice that allows for some drinking is extremely dangerous for people who struggle with addiction.
There are millions of people for whom sobriety cannot mean “drinking or using sometimes.” If given the choice to quit alcohol completely, or to mostly quit, but still partake from time-to-time, obviously we’re going to choose the latter.
But that is a false choice for people with alcoholism with very real consequences.
We might get away with it for a while. I certainly have in the past. There were times I quit drinking for several months only to go back and drink once every week or two. And you know what? It never stuck. In the end, I always went back to heavy drinking.
It is too easy to cling to flimsy identities like California sober as a way to avoid actual sobriety. And honestly, watching people who don’t struggle with addiction try to co-opt this term is annoying as fuck, which is why seeing somebody like Demi adopt these terms frustrates me.
The recovery community is constantly fighting to break the stigma of addiction. The last thing I want to do is wrestle the word away from influencers who want to convert sobriety into a behavioral spectrum that they get to land on just so for the Gram.
In short, we need to stop using the word “sober” for things that are not. It is okay to change your relationship with alcohol and other substances, to use less, and to meet people where they are at in their recovery process.
Just don’t call it sobriety.
Addiction and substance abuse are complex.
I have no idea if moderation (let’s call it what it is) will work for Demi Lovato. I hope it does. She’s been through hell and I want her to find peace.
Statistically, the odds for moderating long term are not in her favor. Most of us know, deep down, that if we try to drink again, it will not end well for us.
But maybe she will succeed. I am not an addiction specialist. There are people far more educated than me who know about the efficacy of harm reduction. It’s not the route I took.
What I do know is how it feels to be a person living in active addiction. I know the mental gymnastics we perform to get out of quitting for good.
Coining phrases that allow sobriety to become squishy is dangerous. We should stop doing it immediately. There are ways to label moderation that do not involve co-opting sobriety.
If you are moderating, say that. If you are cutting back your drinking to special occasions only, say that. Because the strictly abstinent definition of sobriety saves lives. It is foundational.
And if you are a person in a position of power or influence talking about these issues, you have a responsibility to our community to respect that.
I quit drinking 7 months ago for good 😌. I read this article and agree the first couple times I’ve tried to quit. I would smoke weed a few times a month instead and always ended up back binge drinking on the weekends.
I’ve heard this from so many people. We always go back to our drug of choice eventually.