The Cali sober debate: can cannabis aid addiction recovery?
The release of Demi Lovato’s 2021 hit “Cali Sober” launched the term, and the lifestyle choice, out of counterculture circles and into the mainstream. Since then, the singer has announced on Instagram, “Sober sober is the only way to be.” Lovato found their way to the lifestyle choice that works for them, but many others are experimenting with Cali sober and other iterations of sobriety as they seek to live their best lives.
What is Cali sober?
California sober, or Cali sober, is the choice to consume cannabis in moderation and abstain from all other substances. The foundation of this philosophy is to reduce harm by abstaining from drugs and alcohol that hold a higher risk of addiction and death. Some people with addiction use cannabis to stay clean from other substances, but sobriety isn’t one-size-fits-all. For some, using cannabis has been a blessing as they detox and stay clean–but for others, it is possible to lean on the plant as a means of bargaining.
Being Cali sober in recovery communities
Gregg Wietstock has been sober for 17 years. In his recovery community, he has seen fellow alcoholics continue to use cannabis while abstaining from alcohol, but each time it has led to relapse.
When asked about Cali sober, Gregg responded, “Alcoholics and addicts have a tendency to rationalize behaviors in order to continue in the ‘ism’. If the person withdraws from contact with other people and isolates themselves, any problem they may be attempting to remedy with marijuana use is causing other problems. If we don’t get to the underlying issue, we are likely to relapse.”
Katie, who asked that we not use her real name, is a Cali sober member of a common 12-step recovery program. She uses cannabis to relax after a long day but hasn’t disclosed her consumption to her sponsor.
“When I decided to quit drinking alcohol because it was spiraling my life out of control, weed was never something I had questioned to quit as well,” Katie shared, “Alcohol would make me black out and turn me into a totally different person. I tend to pray and meditate after weed which helps my mental relationship with my higher power.”
Chad, another member of the program who has asked that we not use his real name, has been sober for 14 years and doesn’t take issue with people attending meetings while still consuming cannabis.
“I feel there’s somewhat of a stigma for people in the program to say that people that are Cali sober are not sober at all, plus it may offend people that are in the program that had problems with marijuana too,” he said.
“Some folks have reported, before Cali sober seemed to even be a term, that people smoking pot in the program are on the “marijuana maintenance program” and aren’t really sober,” Chad continued. “If you’re trying not to drink and work a 12-step program to be less of an a**hole, then that’s your business.”
Seeking sobriety outside of the 12-steps
Dylan Brewington, CEO of cannabis concentrate brand Globs, got Cali sober using a self-management and recovery training program. SMART Recovery encourages him to use self-agency to understand how alcohol and other substances made his life unmanageable.
“It doesn’t promote a sense of powerlessness to your given addiction, or a sense that you’ll never move on from this,” Dylan told GreenState. “It helped me personally create what I consider to be a much sturdier barrier between myself and the reality of drug and alcohol use in society than what traditional programs had to offer.”
It appears that a reliable community is essential for people in recovery. Gregg, Katie, and Chad rely on fellow members of their 12-step program to avoid returning to active addiction when facing triggers in daily life while Dylan prefers to rely on his local eclectic cannabis community for support.
“The community I’ve surrounded myself with is understanding of my particular lifestyle choice and choose to participate in activities that don’t involve recreational substance and alcohol use, making it a phenomenal group of people,” Dylan shared.
“Granted, the majority of these people aren’t Cali sober specifically, but lead a normal lifestyle integrated with cannabis. Lending more credence to the concept that community and purpose and inclusion really are what remedies the root issues of addiction.”
Replacing alcoholic beverages with cannabis drinks
As the cannabis market proliferates, companies are introducing infused beverage products to replace alcohol. Low-dose seltzers and infused mocktails mimic the flavors of tequila, gin, and bourbon for those looking for an alcohol alternative in their daily lives.
For some, these products remind people of their past addiction, which may trigger a relapse. But for others, often those seeking a Cali sober lifestyle, these product factors provide a comfortable alternative in social settings where alcohol consumption is expected.
Kurt Kinneman, a cannabis grower from the Midwest, uses cannabis and abstains from alcohol, which can get complicated at social events. Kurt shared, “In my family, there is drinking associated with every get-together or social experience. The (cannabis) beverages have been nice to help me feel more included and not be the odd one out. I also enjoy the experience of trying new beverages, which is something I miss from when I was drinking, like trying a new craft brewery’s beer. The drinks do not make me feel triggered.”
Sobriety looks different for everyone, but the root of addiction remains the same
The personalized nature of addiction makes it hard to say whether the Cali sober lifestyle is ideal for one person without weighing multiple factors. Some recovery veterans worry that newcomers will choose Cali sober as an “acceptable” means to numb themselves instead of dealing with their trauma.
In his recovery community, Gregg shared, they encourage the unconvinced addict to go out and experiment to confront underlying issues and commit fully to sobriety.
He explained, “The substance or activity is being abused to cover up another underlying issue that is not being addressed. In recovery, it is called trying to fill a ‘God-shaped hole’ with something else. Better to change the situation.”
For Katie, cannabis brings her closer to her higher power, but she does not believe that the Cali sober life is for everyone.
“I would say to someone who is curious, make sure you are not using it to numb out, it should be something positive. Also, be mindful of moderation and the appropriate time and places to smoke, especially in a non-legal state.”
According to these stories, there is no right way to get sober, and there is no formula for staying sober. For some, like Dylan, Katie, and Kurt, the Cali sober life is a positive one. However, based on feedback from Gregg and Chad, rationalizing unchecked cannabis use in the name of Cali sober could lead to relapse.
Based on testimony from these people along the spectrum of sobriety, the only way to know whether Cali sober or sober sober is the right choice is to engage in self-reflection and community.
Individuals and families facing substance abuse issues can call 1-800-662-HELP 24/7 for information and treatment referrals.
Editor’s Note: For transparency, we want to disclose that the source Gregg Wietstock is the author’s paternal uncle.