On December 2nd of last year, Demi Lovato announced they were no longer “California sober.” The singer’s laconic Instagram story read “I no longer support my ‘California sober’ ways. Sober sober is the only way to be.”
For Lovato “California sober” meant they were off hard drugs but used alcohol and cannabis in moderation. The term is often used to describe a method of fighting addiction that still allows for the consumption of certain drugs.
In an installment of their docuseries, “Dancing with the Devil,” released in March, the singer said, “I’ve learned that it doesn’t work for me to say that I’m never going to do this again.”
Lovato’s decision represents a larger debate that’s been going on for years in the cannabis world: When it comes to addiction, does cannabis help or hurt?
Lovato isn’t the only one using cannabis in place of other substances. According to the “Monitoring the Future” survey funded by NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), college students are using pot more and alcohol less during the pandemic.
The survey results, released in September of 2021, showed 44 percent of college students said they had used cannabis in 2020, a six percent increase since 2015. Meanwhile, the number of students who reported alcohol use dipped from 62 percent in 2019 to just 52 percent in 2020.
Cannabis is being used to replace and supplement opioids, too. A 2019 survey of over 9,000 U.S. adults reported 41 percent of respondents who used cannabis and opioids in the past year said they had decreased or ceased opioid use because of cannabis.
Kikoko, a top-selling cannabis brand based in California, reported a “huge upswing” in customers purchasing cannabis as a replacement for alcohol during the pandemic. Co-Founder and Co-CEO Amanda Jones said a considerable percentage of Kikoko customers are wine moms turned weed moms.
“Many mothers saw their alcohol consumption going up during COVID,” Jones told GreenState. “But there are a lot of bad side effects associated with wine, like weight gain and the sugar keeping them up at night. So we saw more women trying out the cannabis world.”
Kikoko customers also said they have used cannabis to supplement or substitute painkillers and other drugs, and have even used it to curb addiction in some instances, according to Jones. She herself used cannabis to get off sleeping pills and has replaced nightly cocktails with a cannabis-infused drink.
“The doctors don’t necessarily prescribe it (for addiction), but we’ve heard so many stories from people who were addicted to alcohol and tranquilizers and opioids saying cannabis helped them with that,” Jones said.
The claim that using cannabis in place of other drugs can help a person achieve a healthier lifestyle isn’t completely unsubstantiated. Though little researched, there’s a general consensus among health experts that cannabis is less addictive than alcohol, opioids, and other hard drugs, though by how much is unknown.
The fact that it is less dangerous than any of these substances is almost universally acknowledged. Alcohol poisoning and drug overdose kills hundreds of thousands every year in the U.S. alone, while it is almost impossible to overdose on cannabis. While lung damage can occur as a result of vaping and smoking cannabis, just as it can from smoking tobacco, cannabis products come in a variety of edible forms that will not damage the lungs.
According to cannabis medicine expert and clinician Dr. Leigh Vinocur, using cannabis as an alternative to alcohol and any drugs used recreationally is a decidedly healthy decision. As long as you are going to dabble with addictive substances, it’s safe to see cannabis as the lesser evil.
“As a medical cannabis doctor, I’m not the biggest fan of adult-use recreational cannabis. I think we need to research it more. But if you look at comparing it to alcohol and tobacco, and even, though less so, to caffeine, hands down cannabis is safer,” Vinocur told GreenState.
That said, she does not recommend it for addicts.
“If you have a substance use disorder, switching from one addictive substance with a lot of health risks to an addictive substance with fewer health risks may lessen the physical dangers of addiction, but it won’t break the psychological cycle,” Vinocur said.
Vinocur added that sobriety is achieved on two levels: physical sobriety, which involves separation from the substance, and psychological which involves breaking the mental cycle of addiction.
Part of the allure of being “California sober” is that there is some evidence indicating cannabis could ease withdrawal symptoms. For opioid addicts, withdrawal symptoms include diarrhea, insomnia, and cold flashes. For alcoholics, these symptoms can include hallucinations and fever, and could even be deadly.
A 2020 survey conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine showed that nearly 72 percent of 125 respondents who used cannabis for opioid withdrawal symptoms said it diminished the severity of their symptoms. 6.4 percent said cannabis use made their opioid withdrawal symptoms worse.
There’s still a lot of research to be done on the subject. But if cannabis can ease opioid withdrawal symptoms for some people, Vinocur said it’s reasonable to believe it could affect alcohol and tobacco withdrawal too. In order to achieve complete sobriety, though, you have to handle the addiction at the psychological level, not just the physical. While becoming “California sober” may help break physical dependency, Vinocur said it is unlikely to break the cycle of addiction because cannabis itself is addictive.
“Addiction is a horrible disease. We’ve seen it ruin people’s lives and families,” Vinocur said. “And when you have a substance use disorder, it doesn’t matter what the substance is per se. You could stop using a certain substance, but you still have to deal with the mental disorder of addiction. Otherwise, you will likely just become addicted to something else, or relapse.”
Vinocur isn’t the only expert in the field to advise her patients against going California sober. The Addiction Center writes that, “by using ‘soft’ drugs, individuals are, in a way, delaying true sobriety.” And addiction specialist Patrick Cronin told Everyday Health, “With ‘California sober,’ relapse is only a matter of time.”
So while cannabis may be a healthier alternative to alcohol and other drugs for those using it socially, it may not be the best solution for those struggling with addiction.
But being “California sober” is a newly popularized concept, and there is simply not enough research done on the subject to draw any definite conclusions at this time.
Ultimately, recovery is complicated. There is still much we don’t know about addiction, and even less we know about cannabis.
If you are suffering from a substance abuse disorder, talk to a physician or speak to an addiction specialist on the best course of action for you.
Elissa Esher is an editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.