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Drinking Habits

What Does "California Sober" Mean?

July 3, 2023
20 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 3, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
July 3, 2023
20 min read

We've all heard about going "sober," and some of us may have even attempted going “dry” for a few weeks or months. But what’s the deal with "California sober”? 

This term has been buzzing around social circles and Internet discussions recently, painting a rosy picture of substance use. It suggests that certain substances can be replaced with "safer" alternatives, an alluring theory for many. But what does it really mean? And more importantly — how safe is it? Let's take a closer look!

What Does Sober Mean?

Before we define California sober, it’s helpful to understand what sober means. Sober is a term used to describe someone who is completely free from the influence of alcohol or any other mind-altering substance. As such, it’s also used to describe a state of mental clarity and emotional stability. 

When someone says they’re sober, it may mean that they’re currently not under the influence of alcohol or other substances. But it can also mean that they’ve made a decision to live an alcohol- or substance-free lifestyle. 

What Is California Sober?

So, let’s start off with the California sober meaning. Truthfully, the California sober definition is somewhat elusive. For some, it means using cannabis in lieu of alcohol and other addictive substances. For others, it represents a lifestyle of consuming alcohol and cannabis in moderation while steering clear of other drugs. Some who practice a California Sober lifestyle say that psychedelic use is okay, and they may use drugs such as magic mushrooms or LSD.

While the California sober definition may change from person to person, generally speaking, those who practice this lifestyle abstain from their drug of choice while continuing to use substances they consider less harmful. Sounds reasonable, right? Yet it's far from harmless. It's akin to trading one vice for another, which can be a dangerous path. 

The Origins of the California Sober Movement

The California sober approach initially emerged as a self-defined path to sobriety, crafted by people who felt traditional recovery methods did not align with their lifestyle or beliefs. They began swapping hard drugs and alcohol for substances perceived as less harmful, such as cannabis

Singer Demi Lovato popularized the term in March 2021 with the release of her song, “California sober.” After a near-fatal opioid overdose in 2018, Lovato was California sober for three years, continuing to use marijuana and alcohol while in recovery from opioid addiction. She explained her choice, saying in the YouTube docuseries Dancing with the Devil: “Telling myself that I can never have a drink or smoke marijuana, I feel like that's setting myself up for failure because I am such a black and white thinker."

The idea quickly gained momentum on social media and within certain communities. Some embraced it as an innovative way to moderate substance use, while others saw it as a pragmatic approach to deal with their struggles. 

The idea behind this lifestyle is that some drugs (such as alcohol, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and opioids) cause significantly more damage than others, increasing the likelihood of misuse and abuse. Marijuana, on the other hand, has a substantially smaller set of physical and mental health consequences — or so the argument goes. After all, marijuana doesn’t carry the risk of bloodborne infections like intravenous drug use, and because it’s becoming legal (to varying degrees), it’s generally considered a more “acceptable” form of substance use.

Many people who support the California sober approach describe it as “harm reduction” — reducing the risk to people who use substances by switching to safer alternatives. For instance, harm reduction might look like switching to nicotine gum or vaping after quitting cigarettes. Other common forms of harm reduction include safe injection sites or connecting drug users to counseling and medical services.

The Dangers of Being California Sober

As intriguing as it may sound, the California sober approach is fraught with misconceptions and dangers, underlining the need to understand it thoroughly before hopping on this trendy bandwagon. Even Demi Lovato announced in December 2021 (just nine months after the release of “California Sober”) that she no longer believed in a California sober lifestyle, writing in a social media post, “Sober sober is the only way to be.” She has since endorsed an abstinence model of recovery.

So what makes the California sober lifestyle so dangerous? Here are three of its pitfalls:

1. False Perception of Safety

One danger of the California sober approach is the illusion of safety it casts over cannabis use. Some people believe that replacing alcohol with cannabis can help them control their drinking habits. However, research shows that those who switch from alcohol to cannabis are more likely to revert to drinking over time compared to those who completely abstain from both substances.

Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, marijuana is an addictive substance that can have profound psychological consequences. Studies show it can cause issues with short-term memory, learning, and concentration, along with decreased motivation, paranoia, psychosis, irritability, depression, anxiety, and restlessness. Long-term cannabis use may even result in chronic bronchitis, various cancers, and misuse. 

So even if it’s virtually impossible to overdose on marijuana, it’s not without its own adverse consequences — including those of the legal variety, depending on where you live.

2. The Tricky Business of Moderation

The concept of moderation is another pitfall of the California sober lifestyle. It's subjective; what one person views as moderate, another may consider excessive. While some people can enjoy an occasional drink without repercussions, for others, one drink can quickly spiral into many. This makes the California sober approach particularly risky for those with a history of misuse or unhealthy relationships with alcohol or other substances. 

Similarly, because California sober is so loosely defined, it’s all too easy to shape this lifestyle into anything we want. For instance, we can convince ourselves that it’s okay to use hard drugs on the weekends because we only use marijuana during the week. In other words, it becomes easy to rationalize the use of any substance — which is part of the problem with any addiction. This is why an abstinence model is so effective: it says that any drug or alcohol use is off-limits — no exceptions. 

3. Insufficient Support for Substance Dependence

The California sober approach may appeal to those struggling with substance misuse, but it often falls short of providing the necessary support for overcoming dependence. Substance misuse is a complex issue requiring a comprehensive, personalized treatment plan. Simply substituting one substance for another doesn't address the underlying issues or the need for professional help. In other words, it doesn’t get to the root of why we’re using substances in the first place. 

Examining our relationship with substances can help us determine who’s in control: us or the substance? Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Have I experienced negative consequences due to my substance use?
  • Do I find it difficult to stop once I start?
  • Do I have cravings or withdrawal symptoms when I’m not using?

Answering “yes” to any of these questions can be a red flag; professional guidance and support may be in order.

Illustration highlighting the downsides of adopting the California sober approach

Why Abstinence Is a Better Alternative

For those struggling with substance misuse — whether drugs or alcohol — abstinence is typically the most effective route to recovery. While this might seem harsh, it’s the best chance we have to improve our odds of staying clean. Why is this the case? It all comes down to how addiction affects our brain. 

Here’s how it works: dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is part of our brain’s reward center. It’s released in our brain during happy, contented moments, whether we’re enjoying a favorite meal or laughing with friends. Dopamine is also released when we consume alcohol or other drugs. This is why drinking often brings us a feeling of happiness and exhilaration.

However, this dopamine rush is deceiving. As we drink — and experience recurrent dopamine spikes — the brain struggles to maintain equilibrium. Eventually, the same amount of alcohol may no longer result in the same level of dopamine release; we develop tolerance to the alcohol. This means that we need to drink more alcohol to get the same effect, sending us down the road to dangerous drinking habits, or even misuse. This applies to other substances as well. 

Furthermore, the circuits controlling our desire for alcohol or drugs, a desire usually held in check by our prefrontal cortex, are also disrupted. Since our prefrontal cortex supports rational, healthy decision-making, this makes it harder for us to resist using. Interestingly, the same brain changes occur in people with other addictions, such as a gambling or sex addiction. 

The problem with the California sober lifestyle is that it’s essentially trading one addiction for another. Replacing hard substances with “less harmful” substances prevents our brain from regulating domaine and fully recovering. This is why abstaining is so important: it allows our brain to reset itself, which gives us a greater chance at making a full recovery. 

Symptoms of Substance Misuse

So how do you know if you might have a problem with substance misuse? Substance use disorders occur on a scale, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. 

Doctors typically use 10 to 11 diagnostic criteria as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to classify a substance use disorder. Generally speaking, symptoms fall into four categories:

  1. Impaired control, like taking the substance in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended
  2. Social problems, like neglecting responsibilities and relationships
  3. Risky use, like continued use despite known problems
  4. Physical dependence, like needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (or the development of withdrawal symptoms that are relieved by taking more of the substance)

People with two or three of the symptoms are considered to have a “mild” substance use disorder. Four to five symptoms is considered “moderate,” and six or more is considered “severe” — otherwise known as an addiction. 

Treatment Options for Substance Misuse

Substance misuse is a complex issue that often requires a personalized treatment plan. We should consult a medical professional if we find ourselves struggling with drug or alcohol use. There’s no shame in seeking help! In fact, reaching out for help is often the most important step we can take on our healing journey. 

With that in mind, here are 4 effective treatment options for helping us recover from substance misuse: 

  1. 12-step program or other support group. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one of the most common treatment options for alcohol misuse. Support groups are beneficial because they allow us to spend time with others facing similar problems. They also provide advice on staying sober and help reduce our sense of isolation. Studies show that the social connection provided by these groups helps us build confidence in our own ability to avoid alcohol in social situations and supports our sobriety.
  2. Behavioral treatments. Individual, group, and/or family therapy can help us identify the root causes of our substance misuse, repair damaged relationships, develop skills to stop or reduce use, and learn to deal with triggers that might cause us to relapse. CBT is a particularly effective tool, and it’s one of the many types of therapy for substance misuse
  3. Residential treatment or “rehab” facilities. There are both inpatient and outpatient treatment centers that provide intensive treatment for substance misuse. Choosing which one largely depends on the severity of our condition. Inpatient facilities are more intensive, requiring people to stay at a special facility for 30 to 90 days to receive treatment such as detox, therapy, and medication. During outpatient treatment, we would attend set rehab appointments during the week but still reside at home. 
  4. Medication. Depending on our condition, a doctor might prescribe medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms and support us in our effort to stop using.  Benzodiazepines in particular can help alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and Vivitrol (naltrexone) can help us manage cravings. These can be used for a limited time under medical supervision and in conjunction with other methods, such as therapy or rehab. 

The most important thing to remember is that it is possible to heal and recover from substance misuse. The first step is often the hardest. But when we take it, we set ourselves up to experience a renewed sense of freedom and well-being. 

The Bottom Line

While the California sober approach might sound tempting and progressive, we need to remember that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, it's no solution at all. Trading one potentially harmful substance for another simply substitutes one issue for a new one, keeping the cycle of substance misuse alive.

Instead, we must consider our overall well-being, recognize the complexity of substance use, and seek proper help when needed. Understanding the risks involved in the California sober lifestyle helps us make informed decisions and promotes a healthier relationship with substances. After all, the best kind of sober is the one that supports a brighter, healthier, and substance-free future.

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption but don’t know where to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits. 

Summary FAQs

1. What does sober mean?

Sober is a term used to describe someone who is completely free from the influence of alcohol or any other mind-altering substance. As such, it’s also used to describe a state of mental clarity and emotional stability. 

2. What is California sober?

"California sober" doesn’t have an official definition, but it typically means abstaining from certain drugs while continuing to use less harmful substances. For instance, using cannabis in lieu of alcohol and other addictive substances. 

2. What are the origins of the California sober lifestyle? 

Singer Demi Lovato popularized the term in March 2021 with the release of her song, “California sober.” It initially emerged as a self-defined path to sobriety, crafted by people who felt traditional methods of recovery did not align with their lifestyle or beliefs.

3. What are the dangers of being California sober?

The California sober lifestyle is dangerous for a number of reasons, most notably because it trades one potentially harmful substance for another, keeping the cycle of substance misuse alive. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, marijuana is an addictive substance that can have its own adverse consequences, such as decreased motivation, paranoia, depression, and anxiety. 

4. Why is abstinence so important?

Substance misuse is a complex matter that alters our brain chemistry. Abstinence is the only thing that allows our brain to reset itself, which gives us a greater chance at healing and making a full recovery. 

5. What are the symptoms of substance misuse?

There are varying degrees of substance misuse: mild, moderate, and severe. Generally speaking, symptoms include using substances in larger amounts and over a longer period than intended, experiencing social problems, continuing use despite adverse effects, and physical dependence.

6. How is substance misuse treated?

Substance misuse often requires a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan developed by a medical professional. Depending on the severity of our condition, treatment might involve attending rehab, joining a 12-step program, therapy, or medication — or a combination of these.

Cut Back on Alcohol With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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