What Is California Sober and Is It Dangerous?


“California Sober” is when a person gives up on alcohol and hard drugs but continues to consume marijuana. Some individuals also permit the use of psychedelic drugs, such as ayahuasca, LSD or magic mushrooms. 

This approach has gained popularity in recent years, becoming somewhat of a buzzword in recovery circles. Some people see it as a more flexible approach to sobriety, offering an alternative to the rigid principles of complete abstinence. 

However, many addiction specialists warn about the popularisation of this approach, noting that moderation is a common struggle for people in recovery and that continuing to consume other substances can lead to co-addictions or relapse. 

So, which is the truth? We’re going to take a deep look at the California Sober lifestyle and discuss the advantages and risks of this approach for people seeking recovery. 

Defining the “Cali Sober” Approach 

The idea behind the California Sober approach is that people struggling with addiction give up on their drug of choice while still being able to consume other, “less harmful” substances. You could compare it to vaping after giving up on smoking. 

In some ways, California Sober can be seen as a middle ground between addiction and sobriety. Unlike traditional models, which encourage abstaining from all mind-altering substances, California sober allows for a more flexible interpretation of recovery. 

While this lifestyle has existed for a long time, only in recent years has it become widely discussed in recovery circles. Singer Demi Lovato popularised the term with the release of their song “California Sober” in 2021. They said in a documentary series that the California Sober lifestyle was the secret to their recovery. 

Lovato followed this lifestyle for three years after a near-fatal opioid overdose. In late 2021, however, they went back into treatment and, this time gave up on all substances. In an Instagram story, the singer wrote that “sober is the only way” and that California Sober had been a “slippery slope” into relapse.

California Sober as Harm Reduction 

To understand the California Sober approach, it is important to understand the principle of harm reduction. This term refers to public health policies and personal practices that aim to minimise the negative consequences associated with substance use without insisting on total abstinence. 

It is a pragmatic approach rather than an idealistic one, which acknowledges that complete abstinence may not be easily achievable for everyone. In place of the all-or-nothing approach of full abstinence programs, harm reduction aims to save lives and encourage incremental steps towards recovery. 

The main goal of harm reduction is to allow safer consumption of drugs, avoid overdose, and provide medical and counselling services to people suffering from addiction. Some common examples include needle exchanges, Overdose Prevention Centres and the distribution of Naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. 

The California Sober approach is a form of harm reduction which advocates replacing detrimental substances, such as alcohol or so-called hard drugs, with ones deemed less harmful. 

The Benefits of Going California Sober 

Supporters of the California Sober approach say that the lifestyle provides a more flexible approach to sobriety, which opens the door to recovery for more people. Here are a few of the benefits of the California Sober approach: 

1. Gateway to Recovery

California Sober offers a transition phase, which can be a first step towards recovery for anyone who finds the idea of full sobriety overwhelming. By taking a more gradual approach than traditional methods, California Sober makes it possible for people to find a pace that works for their unique situation. This has the potential to make recovery less daunting and more sustainable. 

2. Evaluating The Relationship with Each Substance Individually

Rather than viewing all substances as a collective threat, California Sober encourages a nuanced reflection about each substance, its effects and its risks. This approach encourages individuals to do some introspection and truly think about how specific substances impact their lives and what they use them for. This can foster a more mindful and intentional approach to substance consumption. 

3. Reduced Stigma

The popularisation of the California sober lifestyle can reduce the social stigma associated with addiction and normalise progressive recovery. By giving a name and legitimacy to recovery paths outside of the all-or-nothing approach of abstinence-based programs. California Sober helps individuals feel less judged and can encourage them to seek help without the fear of being seen badly. 

4. Personalised Recovery 

There is no one-size-fits-all journey to recovery, and California Sober acknowledges this. By allowing individuals to define their own path, it encourages a more personalised and sustainable approach to staying sober.

5. Improved Mental Well-being

Some supporters of the California Sober approach argue that its flexibility reduces the stress associated with rigid sobriety, which contributes to better mental health for those in recovery. By permitting the consumption of select substances in moderation, California Sober could provide certain individuals with a more balanced and positive outlook on life. 

6. Sobriety from the Most Harmful Substances

For some people, complete abstinence may not be immediately feasible or practical. California sober allows them to stay away from the substances causing the most harm in their lives while permitting controlled use of others. This harm reduction approach can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with severe addictions, offering a stepping stone towards complete sobriety when they are better positioned to pursue it. 

7. Combining Recovery with Other Medical Needs 

Some people suffering from addiction may require the use of certain substances for medical or personal reasons – for example, using marijuana for chronic pain management or anxiety. California Sober allows them to continue this consumption while still actively engaging in their recovery journey. This can reduce inner conflict and prevent individuals from feeling like they are excluded from recovery because of separate substance requirements. 

A “Slippery Slope”?:  The Risks of California Sober 

Despite these advantages, many recovery specialists advise against going California Sober, saying that permitting select substances can lead to relapse or cross-addictions.

There are several risks and concerns that you should carefully consider if you are thinking of adopting the California Sober approach. 

1 – Potential for Cross-Addiction

Allowing the use of substances other than the primary drug of choice can lead to cross-addiction – meaning that individuals become addicted to the permitted substances on top of their pre-existing dependencies. When you substitute one substance for another, you are particularly vulnerable to developing new addictions. 

2 – Maintaining a Pattern of Dependence 

It is extremely hard to break away from the cycle of substance dependence if you continue to rely on mind-altering substances. While California Sober switches your consumption to substances that are considered less harmful, it doesn’t teach you new patterns or ways of coping without relying on substances. It might help you stop consuming a specific substance, but it doesn’t deconstruct the patterns behind your addiction. 

3- Lack of Clear Boundaries

The California Sober approach blurs the lines between what is acceptable and what is not. As some substances are allowed, it can make it harder to maintain the discipline needed for recovery – part of your brain might continue to think that if some substances are allowed, why shouldn’t others be?

Moderation is a struggle for many people suffering from addiction, and the permissive nature of California Sober can increase the likelihood of relapse because of the lack of clear boundaries around consumption. 

4 – Health Consequences:

While substances like marijuana may be considered less harmful than others, they are not without health consequences. Continued use, even in moderation, can have negative impacts on physical and mental health. For instance, marijuana use can cause respiratory issues and a decline in memory and cognitive function. 

5 – Masking Underlying Issues

Continuing to use substances can mask the underlying emotional or psychological issues that contribute to addiction. Individuals may use the permitted substances to handle their distress, preventing them from examining the root causes of their suffering. This makes it harder to achieve lasting sobriety. 

Considering the risks of California Sober, many recovery specialists warn against using this approach, and some openly describe it as dangerous. 

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While some people see California Sober as a helpful way to begin recovery, the risks associated cannot be ignored. California Sober can pave the way to cross-addiction, relapse, or unsustainable recovery as you aren’t learning any healthy coping mechanisms or dealing with underlying causes of addiction. 

If the idea of sobriety is intimidating to you get in touch with Castle Craig today. Our dedicated team are happy to answer any questions you have regarding addiction treatment. We will outline your options and help you find the treatment path best suited to you.

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