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Is California Sober The Way Forward?

Mental health professionals warn it’s a risky proposition for people prone to addictions. But for others, it might be the ideal lifestyle for post-pandemic life.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Drinking wasn’t ruining my life by any means. But a former drinking buddy’s February Facebook post prompted me to reconsider my relationship with alcohol. After several dry months, he was happier and healthier. He joked he never suspected a depressant like alcohol would make him feel depressed.

While I didn’t quit drinking altogether, I rolled back booze, going from drinking once or twice per week to once or twice a month. I slept better and lost some weight. And I rediscovered the simple pleasure of THC without alcohol. Unwittingly, I’d backed into a trend. I was California sober.

If the temperance movement began on a sunset beach to the sounds of The Mamas & the Papas, it’d be California sober. Definitions vary. Generally, California sober entails being sober except for weed. But also it can allow for the odd drink. And psychedelics. Essentially, California sober argues that sobriety isn’t a zero-sum equation. And that weed’s fine. Mental health professionals warn it’s a risky proposition for people prone to addictions. But otherwise, it might be the ideal lifestyle for post-pandemic life.

To paraphrase my old friend Hunter Thompson, I hate to advocate drugs to anyone, but marijuana’s been working pretty well for me lately. My home state, New Jersey, legalized marijuana. Edibles label their strength, so it’s easy to tailor your dosage to your needs. For me, 5 milligrams can make a phone call bouncy and fun. Ten make Godzilla vs. Kong a profoundly moving experience. 

America as a whole might benefit from cutting back on booze. We’ve hit the bottle hard during the pandemic, with people turning to alcohol to quell pandemic-related stress. While increased alcohol use is understandable given the circumstances, the drinking has taken a toll, with alcohol-related liver disease admissions spiking in hospitals across the country under the pandemic. Hard drug use has also skyrocketed under the pandemic, with similarly devastating consequences. Overdose deaths, already on the rise before COVID-19, reached an unprecedented high in 2020

While California sober isn’t new, pop star Demi Levato put it in the spotlight this year. Levato’s well-publicized struggles with substance abuse include a near-fatal 2018 overdose. But despite warnings from sober celebrity friends like Elton John, Levato continues to use marijuana and alcohol in moderation. So committed is she to the California sober lifestyle, she even recorded a song about it

California sober made my break from alcohol easier. Avoiding alcohol was less daunting. It felt like I was using a cheat code to attain a dry month. Advantages quickly became evident. After pairing alcohol and weed for so long, weed on its own felt calmer, less rife with impulsion. I stayed quiet and still. I didn’t raid the fridge as much and stayed off social media. I woke up without hangovers. I’ve saved money and put far less bottles and cans for recycling. 

But I’m not an addict. And for addicts, moderate use of substances is a risky proposition. 

“Some people are able to manage their drug use through harm reduction strategies such as this one, rather than maintaining a completely sober lifestyle,” says Jeffrey Zipper, CEO of Florida-based addiction treatment service IRecoveryUSA, who stresses that people prone to addictions should avoid it. 

Zipper’s advice echoes 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. AA contends that moderation is impossible for addicts. The first step of AA’s 12-steps is admitting powerlessness over your addiction. AA adherents believe that moderate use only awakens a greater hunger for a bigger high and complete abstinence. But the effectiveness of those programs has come into doubt. The 2014 book The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry found 12-step programs to only succeed between 5 and 10 percent of the time. 

Kate Judd, Program Director at San Diego’s Shoreline Recovery Center, warns that California sober may merely paper over the real issues driving substance abuse. 

“People who abuse drugs and alcohol are using the substances as a coping mechanism or escape from these underlying issues often including depression, anxiety, trauma, or mood/thought disorders,” she says. “The use of mind- altering substances, however socially acceptable, is often an impediment to treating the real issues that lead to addiction.” 

So, for those with addiction issues, California sober is by no means the answer. But for someone like myself who felt the need to cut back without cutting out everything? I’m happy with the choice.

I’m not sure how long my California sober experiment will last. I’ve been drinking more over the past two weeks, which shows it’s easy to slip when you don’t have a hard stop. It’s getting warmer and the country’s opening up. Having a beer out in the sun, among people, sounds pretty nice. No worries. For me, California will still be there when I need it.