What is California Sober?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

September 26, 2023

Table of Contents

California sober is a term that refers to a lifestyle where individuals abstain from all substances except marijuana. While some may view Cali sober as a way to replace addictive substances with seemingly less harmful alternatives, the safety and effectiveness of this approach generates significant debate within the sober community.

This brief guide explains the concept of California sober, emphasizes its potential pitfalls, and highlights the negative consequences of relying on marijuana as a substitute for other drugs. This article is meant for informational purposes, Renaissance Recovery is not a California Sober facility.

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California Sober

The term “California sober” was coined by author Michelle Lhooq in an essay published in Vice magazine. Lhooq shared her personal experience of abstaining from all drugs except marijuana and psychedelics. Different interpretations of California sober exist, with some allowing for the moderate use of hallucinogens and psychedelics.

In essence, the California sober approach encourages individuals to abstain from certain addictive substances while seeking out potentially less damaging substitutes. That said, when singer/actress Demi Lovato brought the term into the public realm while discussing her battle with addiction, it triggered backlash from some members of the recovery community.

Towards the end of 2021, though, singer Demi Lovato reported on the problematic nature of being California sober. In a December article published in USA Today, Lovato shared her personal journey and the realization she had reached after a near-fatal overdose in 2018. Despite initially adopting the California sober approach – for her, this involved continuing to use alcohol and marijuana – Lovato eventually came to understand that true sobriety required complete abstinence from all substances. Her decision to become “sober sober” has sparked an important conversation about the potential dangers of embracing the California sober lifestyle.

Lovato’s public battle with addiction serves as a reminder that the concept of California sober may not be as harmless as it is often portrayed. While some people may view it as a means of moderation and harm reduction, it is imperative to consider the potential risks and limitations associated with this approach and to decide whether this path truly supports long-term health and sobriety. Rather than embracing a potentially risky and unsustainable lifestyle, seek evidence-based treatment approaches that prioritize holistic healing and address the underlying causes of addiction.

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What Are the Drawbacks of California Sober?

While everyone has a unique experience of addiction and recovery, there are some potential pitfalls for anyone considering the Cali sober approach. These include: 

  1. Dangers of self-medication
  2. Negative consequences of marijuana
  3. Returning to old habits
  4. Failing to treat the underlying problem
  5. Minimal harm reduction delivered
a woman is looking out at California scenery to represent a California sober lifestyle.

1) Dangers of self-medication

In traditional addiction treatment, medical professionals often employ MAT (medication-assisted treatment) to streamline the withdrawal process. This approach is closely monitored and supported by scientific evidence. However, with California sober, individuals take control of their substance use without professional guidance. For those struggling with substance use disorder, this can be a risky path. Moderation is often challenging for individuals with addictive tendencies – a defining characteristic of addiction is the inability to control or moderate substance use regardless of adverse outcomes. Switching substances may merely shift the dependency without addressing the underlying issues. Most successful recovery plans emphasize abstinence.

2) Negative consequences of marijuana

Laws surrounding marijuana are changing across the United States and researchers continue to investigate the potential benefits of marijuana. That said, marijuana is associated with adverse outcomes that include issues with short-term memory, learning, and concentration. Additionally, marijuana can impair judgment, motor coordination, and motivation. It may also lead to paranoia, psychosis, irritability, depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. 

Long-term use of marijuana can result in lung damage and addiction, with tolerance, cravings, and dependence developing over time. Research shows that roughly 30% of those who use marijuana later develop an addiction (marijuana use disorder). The risk of developing an addiction to marijuana is heightened among those who use marijuana frequently, and among those who started using marijuana during youth, according to this study.

Beyond this, marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, potentially leading to legal complications for those adopting the California sober approach to addiction recovery.

3) Returning to old habits

Simply replacing one substance with another increases the likelihood of relapsing into the original addictive substance because longer periods of abstinence are associated with a reduced risk of relapse. The risk is especially significant in states where marijuana is not legalized. Obtaining the new substance may require visiting locations where the previously struggled substance is accessible. Since marijuana impairs judgment, this increases the chances of poor decision-making. Coupled with potential mental health issues associated with addiction – co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis – this can create a dangerous environment conducive to relapse.

4) Failing to treat the underlying problem

One of the main flaws with the California sober approach is that it fails to address the cause of addiction. Substance use is oftentimes a coping mechanism used to deal with underlying problems like anxiety, trauma, stress, or other unresolved issues. By relying on substances to alter their state of mind, individuals may avoid confronting these deeper problems. Substance use disorder is a manifestation of the underlying issues, and true recovery comes from addressing and resolving these root causes.

5) Minimal harm reduction delivered

While California sober is sometimes promoted as a harm reduction strategy, relying on marijuana or other substances as alternatives can still pose risks to physical and mental health. The negative consequences associated with substance use – impaired cognitive function, decreased motivation, and potential addiction, for instance – remain a concern, even when viewed through the lens of harm reduction. 

While the concept of California sober offers a more fluid approach to sobriety for some people, it may not be the smartest move for everyone. The potential drawbacks of relying on marijuana or other substances as substitutes cannot be ignored. By choosing California sober, individuals may inadvertently undermine their recovery and hinder their chances of achieving lasting sobriety. These drawbacks highlight the need for a comprehensive approach to addiction treatment that goes beyond substance substitution and focuses on healing the whole person.

Getting Sober at Renaissance Recovery

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we’ll help you to embrace all aspects of sober living. If you require a supervised medical detox for alcohol or drug withdrawal, we have connections in the area to get the help you need at a Huntington Beach rehab center. With prescription medications soothing the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and cravings, you’ll also benefit from around-the-clock clinical and emotional care.

We provide outpatient programs at the following levels of intensity: 

  • OP (standard outpatient program): 2 hours of weekly therapy
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program): 9 to 15 hours of weekly therapy
  • PHP (partial hospitalization program): 30 to 35 hours of weekly therapy

Regardless of the intensity of therapy that makes the best fit, you’ll enjoy access to the same services you would find in residential rehab, but in a more affordable and less restrictive form. At Renaissance Recovery, we offer you the following therapies: 

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Psychotherapy (CBT or DBT)
  • Counseling (individual and group)
  • Holistic therapies

We will also ensure that you finish your treatment program with the right level of aftercare in place, stepping down to a less intensive form of treatment if this makes the most seamless route to long-term recovery. Call 866.330.9449 to get things started.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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