How going “California Sober” became the pandemic-era vibe

An illustration of a person holding a marijuana joint, representing California sober
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As we all emerge from our extended quarantine hibernation, some of us are finding that we don’t actually want to go back to “normal.” Re-entering into the world gives us a chance to re-evaluate our choices. For some people, that means changing their relationship to substance use. California Sober — which varies in definition, but generally means only smoking weed and taking some psychedelics — is a trend we’ve seen ebb and flow over the past few years, but it seems to be having a major resurgence in this post-pandemic world.

Some experts attribute the re-found popularity of the California Sober lifestyle to the fact that some prominent celebrities are touting it. “Demi Lovato’s recent song by the same name, as well as their documentary ‘Dancing with the Devil,’ have promoted this movement as a means of recovering sustainably by not forbidding yourself from consuming all substances,” says Ray Sadoun, a London-based recovery specialist. Lovato came under fire for coming out as Cali Sober by recovery purists, who seem to feel like Cali Sober just isn’t sober enough.

But experts think that Lovato just happens to be on the receiving end of the backlash because of their fame, and that actually, Cali Sober and all the publicity around it may just be a natural response to the Puritanism of many recovery options. “Many people feel let down by abstinence-based treatment,” he says. To Sadoun’s thinking, the California Sober movement has arisen as an alternative that lets people cut out the substances that harm them while not forbidding substance use entirely. And we might attribute the resurgence of this movement to the reality that we want to socialize right now, after what feels like an eternity of isolation and skin hunger. And socializing often means popping or smoking something.

But Sadoun also thinks that critics of Cali Sober might have a point. Individuals who struggle with substance misuse disorder may be prone to relapse and Sadoun fears that using some drugs sometimes might be tempting fate. “Cali Sober is an extremely risky decision,” he says because, “the occasional use of marijuana can easily spiral into addiction if you are already prone to addictive behaviors.” There was an uptick in substance misuse during the pandemic, so for folks who already struggle with moderation, Sadoun thinks that now may not be the time to try the Cali Sober lifestyle.

Sadoun’s balanced perspective is progressive when compared to traditional approaches to addiction recovery. But as a person who is both an active drug user and who has also misused some drugs in the past, I’m not sure any of the traditional methods go far enough in getting to the root of the problem. While abstinence-based twelve step approaches did help me in some critical moments, I eventually found them cultish and overly restrictive. Not only that, but I feel like traditional approaches to addiction recovery have kind of lost the plot.

After the hellish year we’ve all had, a little chemically-enhanced recreational pleasure feels like a major hit of relief.

I was a dick to people when I was using some drugs. But now that I have some distance and perspective on that time in my life, I feel that the problem wasn’t actually the drugs. The reality is that I had a lot of unresolved emotional issues that made me behave insensitively to people I care about. Twelve-step programs helped me stop distracting myself with numbing behaviors to start dealing with myself, but now that I’ve unpacked a lot of the psychological baggage that was actually the root of the problem, I find I can take drugs casually with no ill effects. And, let’s be honest, after the hellish year we’ve all had, a little chemically-enhanced recreational pleasure feels like a major hit of relief.

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Some leaders in the field of addiction agree that centering substances as “the problem” when you’re talking about addiction recovery is actually part of the problem and that sobriety movements — including Cali Sober — emphasize that. “The focus on sober has shifted focus away from the actual problem, which is the behavior,” says Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, and author of the book Drug Use for Grown Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. Hart should know. He’s not just an expert in the field of addiction, he’s also a casual drug user himself and a drug use activist. “If you are belligerent when you’re drunk, the problem isn’t the alcohol. The problem is that you are belligerent.”

The other issue with Cali Sober is that it creates this false dichotomy between good drugs and bad drugs. “Alcohol and weed are both drugs,” Hart tells Mic. “If these drugs are good, but MDMA is bad, we need to ask why. Why is MDMA bad and why is weed good?” Encouraging the idea that some substances are inherently better than others is dangerous — and often racially charged. This kind of logic that bolsters Cali Sober can be seen as the same logic that has fueled our government’s racist war on drugs for the past four decades. This time it’s just coming to us packaged in palm trees and pop songs.

Hart thinks it’s pretty obvious why Cali Sober is such a vibe right now. “We just came out of unprecedented conditions,” Hart says. “We all need more structure moving forward than we’ve had in the past year, so a lot of behaviors will change.” In other words, we all need a bit of relief, but we may only be able to handle it in smaller doses than we have in the past. It’s kind of like we’re all dipping our toe back into partying.

This kind of logic that bolsters Cali Sober can be seen as the same logic that has fueled our government’s racist war on drugs for the past four decades.

It doesn’t hurt the image of Cali Sober that it’s been taken up by celebrities as a way to #liveyourbestlife, but let’s not forget that while it seems like Cali Sober is some naturally occurring wellness movement, it’s not. Cali Sober is poised to become a billion dollar industry, and that means that it’s got hoards of marketing teams behind it. That doesn’t mean Cali Sober is a bad — or good — way to live, just be aware of what kind of wellness bandwagon you’re jumpin onto.

Sometimes things are trending because they feel and look good. Other times, it’s because venture capitalists are betting we will buy into them. Experts like Hart want to encourage us to think past what’s trending when it comes to taking drugs. “If people want to be sober, cool,” he says, “but if they want to use drugs, that’s also cool.” The point is, your imbibing choices should be based upon what’s right for your lifestyle and limitations. And since the definition of Cali Sober is in flux, you can choose that life without demonizing the choices of people who choose differently.

I, for one, want to live in a world where we accept and normalize responsible drug use so that we can all partake in its pleasures without fear of punishment. Maybe the new surge in popularity of Cali Sober is a pandemic-created, marketing-fueled trend, but as it becomes more mainstream, perhaps it can help shift the cultural perspective away from seeing drugs as bad and give us all a higher point of view.