Put down the drink, pick up a joint: What is ‘California Sober’?

California Sober is getting a lot of hype, but could it leave addicts falling into old patterns?

California Sober is getting a lot of hype, but could it leave addicts falling into old patterns? Photo: Getty

While addictions to drug and alcohol remain a concern, the casual use of drugs and alcohol is widespread in Australia.

In 2019, 43 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over had used an illicit drug at some point in their life.

The most common drug used in the previous 12 months was cannabis, followed by cocaine and ecstasy.

The same year, the proportion of Australians drinking in excess of lifetime risk guidelines was a relatively low 16.8 per cent, but alcohol accounted for 59 per cent of drug-related hospitalisations in 2021-22. It was also the most common reason for people to receive treatment for drug use.

While going cold-turkey might be the knee-jerk reaction to an addiction, a trend growing in popularity in the US takes a softer approach.

Dubbed ‘California Sober’, the movement encourages followers to quit what’s doing them the most harm, while continuing to use drugs that are considered less harmful.

What does California Sober mean?

There’s no official definition for this approach to sobriety.

Some use it to describe cutting out alcohol and ‘hard’ drugs while continuing to use cannabis, and others say it means consuming alcohol and cannabis in moderation while avoiding other substances.

The common denominator is that cannabis is generally seen as acceptable to use because it’s seen as less addictive than other drugs and less likely to result in problematic behaviour or overdoses.

However, cannabis is addictive and while the effects of the drug may vary from person to person, negative effects can include paranoia, cardiovascular system damage and upper respiratory tract cancers.

Is this sobriety method effective?

The effects of excessive alcohol consumption are well-known, and may be leading to the rise in teetotallers – the proportion of ex-drinkers in Australia rose from 7.1 per cent in 2001 to 8.9 per cent in 2019.

Meanwhile, cannabis use is increasing across all age categories, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

With cannabis proving to be increasingly popular as the shine comes off alcohol, the California Sober method could hold appeal to Australians.

Massachusetts General Hospital primary care physician and recovering opioid addict Peter Grinspoon told The New York Times total abstinence is very restrictive.

“We really have to meet people where they are and have a broader recovery tent,” he said.

Advocates for California Sober include American singers Willie Nelson, The Weeknd, and formerly Demi Lovato.

But Lovato has withdrawn her support for the method. She said that continuing to smoke and drink led her back to rehab in 2021, after a near-fatal overdose in 2018.

“I was smoking so much weed and taking edibles, sometimes, 300 milligrams at a time,” she said on The Howard Stern Show.

“All I did was replace my addiction with something that I thought was safer.”

Psychiatrist and addiction specialist Akhil Anand told the Cleveland Clinic that the term California Sober is a misnomer, as followers are replacing one addictive substance with another.

This can be a “slippery slope”, he said.

“After all, you’re not sober if you’re still using mind-altering substances.

“People who replace alcohol with marijuana are more likely to eventually start drinking again, compared to people who give up drinking and don’t use marijuana.”

But if you’re still interested in trying the unorthodox sobriety approach, especially while continuing to drink alcohol, Anand said it’s important to set clear goals around how much daily use is acceptable.

He said you should also be honest with yourself about whether you need to seek additional help if you can’t meet those goals.

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline: 1800 250 015

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