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‘Cali sober’ supporters say yes, you can be sober and still smoke weed

January 31, 2020
cali sober
Photo by Jesse Milns/Leafly

When Sarah, a writer and illustrator who lives in Brooklyn, refers to herself as sober, she’s part of an increasingly visible trend that defines that term in relation to alcohol use only.

“At least for my wide social circle in NYC, that term mostly refers to alcohol use, probably because being social in New York is so alcohol-focused,” said Sarah, who asked to go by a pseudonym, as cannabis use is still illegal federally in the United States.

She stopped drinking four years ago because she found it actually inhibited her ability to enjoy herself because she became intoxicated after just a drink. “Plus, I found myself drinking in order to make decisions I didn’t feel 100% good about, like, ‘Oh, if I get drunk, I can do this or that and not feel bad about it,’” she said. “So I just quit entirely.”

But Sarah does still use cannabis occasionally, both recreationally and to relieve anxiety. It’s hard to quantify how many other people have similar relationships with alcohol and cannabis, but social interest in sobriety is increasing just as legal cannabis becomes more available, and increasingly associated with an overall trend toward wellness.

Whether people who don’t drink alcohol but do use cannabis refer to themselves as Cali sober, sober smokers, or something else, the apparent trend for that lifestyle choice makes sense in the wider cultural context.

“With all the non-alcoholic aperitifs and drink options in 2019, I think it’s a lot more common for people to not drink today than it was even five years ago,” Sarah said. “Combine that with relaxing ideas about cannabis use, and I think most people understand how the two drugs can affect us so differently.”

Changing attitudes on weed

2019 was the first full year of legal recreational cannabis in Canada, and although cannabis remains federally illegal in the US, many states are loosening restrictions or legalizing it.

So far, cannabis use in Canada—where both medical and recreational weed are legal across the country—doesn’t appear to be changing significantly post-legalization. In mid-2019 about 4.9 million Canadians aged 15 or older reported using cannabis in the previous three months, according to Statistics Canada. That was unchanged from a year earlier, before recreational cannabis legalization came into effect in Canada.


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But attitudes about cannabis use continue to shift over time. In the days before federal legalization in Canada, an Abacus poll found that 70% of Canadians either supported legalization or were fine with it. Half of those Canadians said that cannabis was no worse to consume than alcohol, and another 26% thought cannabis represented the better choice. People under the age of the 30 were particularly likely to think cannabis was better to consume, or no better or worse to consume, than alcohol.

At the same time, an overall trend toward wellness—which covers everything from diets and cleanses to crystals and essential oils—continues to grow, bringing cannabis along as awareness about its uses expands like chia seeds in a green smoothie.

Cali sober

Rightly or wrongly, California has long been seen as the epicentre of North American wellness trends. Some of this impression comes from the state’s status as the primary home of the entertainment industry and the people who work in it, although this stereotype is hardly a consistent reality—it’s a large and populous state, after all, with nearly as many people in it as are in Canada.

Nevertheless, California’s enduring, if complicated, reputation for wellness is increasingly colliding with another growing industry: cannabis. That takes many forms, from the state’s legal medical cards to the wellness industry’s swift adoption of CBD. In a 2019 story for Vice , Michelle Lhooq described a particular kind of sobriety that allows for cannabis use (and in Lhooq’s case, the use of psychedelics).


Could Cannabis Eventually Replace Anti-Anxiety Medications?

Lhooq coined her move away from alcohol and party-associated drugs like cocaine toward cannabis and psychedelics as “California sober,” or “Cali sober” though it’s a term not everyone identifies with. “My boyfriend was born and grew up in Los Angeles, and visibly cringes every time someone uses the word ‘Cali,’” Sarah said. “I asked him about the phrase and, yeah, he cringed. ALL my friends from California are always like, ‘Don’t call it Cali!’”

Different definitions of sobriety

Whatever it’s called, not everybody is on board with a definition of sobriety that includes cannabis. In June 2019, the New York Times published an article about the “sober curious” trend—people who are choosing to drink less or abstain from alcohol entirely simply because it’s healthier, or they want to—and not necessarily because they’re dealing with an addiction.

Holly Glenn Whitaker, the founder of sobriety school Tempest, told Refinery 29 that framing sobriety as a trend or product strips it of its meaning. And in an article for The Walrus, reporter Ama Scriver pointed out that some of the marketing around cannabis and wellness is ableist—but also looked at how words like “clean” and “sober” can have their own problems.

Meanwhile, two of the best-known organizations for people who identify as sober—Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous—are staying out of the discussion. When contacted for comment for this article, a spokesperson from Alcoholics Anonymous said that it is AA policy not to develop or offer opinions on any cause, sober trends, or even the subject of alcohol, in order to avoid distraction from its primary purpose of helping alcoholics who want to stay sober.


Considerations for healthier cannabis consumption

The debate about where cannabis fits into sobriety is in continual evolution, but at this point, Sarah says she hasn’t personally experienced much tension related to her choices. “Maybe if I didn’t drink and was super judgemental about it at parties, people would push back on my cannabis use or think it was strange. But it’s all a personal decision for me, and basically a social non-issue at his point,” she said.

“If someone judges that, I think that says a lot more about their own relationship with drugs and alcohol than mine.”

Terri Coles's Bio Image

Terri Coles

Terri Coles is a freelance reporter living and working in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. She reports on a variety of topics but is especially interested in health, politics, policy, and technology.

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  • Highway 69

    Only hipsters would use “Cali” in a sentence, and I’m sure “Cali-sober” is another attempt to sound cool. Sober is sober… It means no drinking. Clean means no drugs — including cannabis. Simple. Don’t invent euphemisms to rationalize your behavior.

    I haven’t drank in years, so I am sober, but my drug of choice is weed, so no.. I’m NOT clean (at least not since last night).

    • Moose and Squirrel

      Yeah, nobody in California calls it “Cali”. However, I don’t consider weed a drug any more than I think Basil is one. Having tried many “drugs”, pot never resulted in doing something dangerous, hurting someone (including myself) or any other bad downside issue. I eat some pizza and take a nap.

      So yeah, I’d call myself unclean if I was using heroin, cocaine, meth or a similar drug. Those generally all result in death, prison or at a minimum losing all of your money and your health. So far weed hasn’t even come close to any of that.

    • jontomas

      This article was extremely minimally about being “clean.” It was only mentioned once in passing. – Your attempt to build much significance into it fails. – We’re talking about sobriety.

      I don’t drink, but I do consume marijuana. And I consider myself completely “clean.”

      If you’re not clean, you’re unclean. That’s just a major description used by bigots to describe those they are bigoted against. As in “dirty hippie,” “dirty Mexican,” etc.

      Let’s move on past that nonsense.

      • Highway 69

        Let’s move then.
        You seem to have a need to consider yourself “clean”… so be it.

    • Zombie Q

      100% agree.

    • Wendy S

      ya know all those ppl in the rooms that smoke cigarettes?? they’re not Clean (or sobor) either

    • Allen Taylor

      Nailed it!

  • Toyland

    I am happy to see that there is a trend towards drinking less. However, after many years in and out of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous I have to agree that “Sober is sober”. I currently choose not to drink but imbibe in the weed quite often. I am open and honest about this. But that is just my humble opinion. To each their own. Oh, and I hate it when people refer to California as Cali!!!

    • Zombie Q

      wondering if you get any pushback from your 12-step fellows? glad you are honest about it and good for you!

  • Dirty Hippie

    I heard the term “California sober” at an AA meeting back in the 90s from a dude who talked about smoking pot while sober. Nothing new here.

  • k j

    Alcohol is a much stronger, longer lasting drug. But with cannabis, You can smoke till midnight and get up for work bright eyed and bushy tailed. So yeah, relatively it is much more sober activity.

    • Mike Litoris

      I’ve smoked and taken edibles before and woke up the next day still stoned. And I know others who have had the exact same experience. It all depends on what strain you smoke/ingest and how much. And your tolerance of course. Yes, I know some peeps that can smoke all day long and be fine, but that’s not the majority of users. YMMV.

  • Moira Faulds

    I agree with Highway 69! I was ten years sober in the nineties and now am coming up on almost six years this July 21, however I smoke pot therefore am not clean. However, the most important thing for me is to avoid alcohol (my gateway drug) and thus harder drugs such as cocaine and I don’t miss either and am very grateful for life today! XO Mo

    • Highway 69

      Congratulations and continued blessings to you, Mo!

  • Longhand

    I think you are being a bit harsh, Richard. Maybe you should drop the drink, and try being responsible with your cannabis experiments! I don’t think that cannabis is a fantasy drug like MDA, MMDA, or psychodelics. I think if you pick your strain correctly, and refine it, cannabis can be helpful in many ways from sprains to nausea to just whatever you find it can be useful for, even a substitute for alcohol, or a new chance to balance one’s life activities after giving up alcohol.

  • Golfguy511

    You are either “not impaired or inebriated” which is to say, “sober or you are “impaired or inebriated” which is to say you are not sober. Use THC and you are not sober. In my 58 years I’ve never seen a time where so many people delude themselves with so much BS! Cali sober my ass! Cali stupid more like it!

    • Zombie Q

      how do you feel about caffeine and nicotine — which a sizeable number of AA folks use. if you don’t have a problem with that but have a problem with cannabis your argument falls flat.

      • Golfguy511

        Wrong, my argument is valid. Alcohol and THC products actually cause the type of impairment that interferes with your ability function normally. A cup or 2 of coffee does not interfere with your abilities. If you want to get crazy about this you could start arguing we are never really “sober” because just our thoughts can create a rise in endorphins. An injury will produce a biological response where our bodies will release chemicals and change our baseline. Get my point? It’s about being reasonable.

        • Zombie Q

          your argument doesn’t factor in what functioning “normally” is? Is someone with mental illness, say a chemical imbalance, functioning normally? Is someone with undiagnosed trauma functioning normally? And your definition of “reasonable” may not work for others. Why not be inclusive, instead of rigid and judgmental?

          Harm reduction also works for people who can’t tolerate extremes. Cannabis helps multitudes of people function, including children and animals.

  • Zombie Q

    years ago, if one was prescribed anything for mood by their doctor they were considered “not sober” which is obviously ridiculous. many people reject the all-or-nothing diatribe from 12-step programs. sometimes harm reduction is more helpful. it doesn’t mean the person is lying to themselves. no one owns the definition of sober.

  • Zombie Q

    are antidepressants a crutch. nicotine? coffee? where do you draw the line? all or nothing thinking doesn’t work for everyone. sometimes harm reduction is more effective.

  • Michaela Gillogly

    I hate the term Cali and had pre judged the author negatively.

  • Jeff Mallory

    Are you “sober” if you take mood-altering prescribed medications? Are you “sober” if you are a social drinker or smoker? Are you “sober” if you’re so worked up over the bullshit political situation or your lover’s infidelity that you can’t see straight or act without tremendous amounts of emotion?

    Whether I’m “sober” or not intentionally avoids the truly important and vastly uncomfortable question of whether I am being consciously and attentively aware of and accepting of my accountability and responsibility for all my actions and interactions with myself, others and the world in this moment and in my life. Whether you’re partying, driving, piloting an aircraft, taking care of children, whatever! We are not a society that encourages taking personal responsibility and this “what is being sober” question is just a way to further avoid looking at our own accountability for our thoughts, speech and actions by having a meaningless debate about who is sober and who isn’t.

    The truly and consistently unsober, by whatever chemical or substance means, who cannot take personal responsibility for their behaviors and actions, generally, need intervention or consistent outside help and support, e.g. AA, NA, etc. and are the folks who should be receiving the attention and energy of this meaningless debate about “what is sober and what isn’t”.

  • Joanne Mainer

    I just say I’m sober and hell yes I smoke weed… I live in East Texas (:

  • valleevue

    At 74 others opinion about my use of cannabis does NOT matter.
    As a young man unfortunately before any marijuana use I became problematic with heroin use.
    In my mid teens.So addiction,crime and jail. Treatments began as well as failures and the continuation of jailings.
    Finally in 1966 entered a Therapeutic Community (or go to jail) with long term stay.
    I made changes for the better ,suffered a short relapse and rentered treatment.
    But this time was aware of depression and traumas .
    Alcohol which was available of course did not help .What did help?
    What did help was a wee bit of cannabis which seemed to reset my mind…..I felt appropriate guilt and fear. Appropriate fear of heroin and getting addicted. I entered AA (a good choice) and abstained from both alcohol as well as marijuana ‘
    So after the medical legalization and turning 72 and thinking things through after various surgeries ,procedures and injuries I became involved with a medical dispensary and it does the trick.
    Pain Relief no narcotics and NOT being impaired I’m able to function and stay active often doing Tai’Chi,Yoga,Swimming,Hiking etc. and I’m not STONED .

  • valleevue

    I have come across many an alcohol use some even total “Drunkies” who express anti pot views many ste they hate “DRUGGIES” ….ALCOHOL is a drug a dangerous and highly addictive one

  • Allen Taylor

    A drugs a drug. Dont get me wrong. I love weed but it triggers my bipolar like mofo. It’s my Achilles heel. Dont believe your own BS. Then you’re no different than the PO(TU)S.

    • carl vagg

      cannabis reduces even cures epilepsy, i know.. there are many medicinal drugs.. heroin and nicotine are ‘highly addictive’ ‘supertoxins’, with massive death tolls.. cannabis has no known death toll, including from ancient texts of india and china, where cannabis was a medicine used for diseases/illness’ similar to today.. all drugs are not, the same..

  • Billy Drewitz

    I love this. I have been sober from drugs and alcohol for almost 16 years now. About 12 of those years – no cannabis either. Then came the pharmaceuticals to help me with my sleep disorder. Lunesta caused panic attacks and amnesia. I turned to cannabis as a safe alternative and it has been a perfect fit in my nighttime routine ever sense. I used AA and NA to get sober – I recommend no other way – it works. But now cannabis plays an important part in my life with no side effects. I am judged by many in the “sober” community but it’s my life and not theirs. It works!

  • carl vagg

    as an [old] aussie ‘sober’ to me means alcohol free.. after stopping alcohol [forced due to meds] cannabis became my medicinal [epilepsy] and social drug.. alcohol basically destroys potential benefits of natural cannabis.. for me even a low alcohol beer caused headaches [with meds]..
    so i was forced into sobriety [over 30 yrs ago], but still enjoy an occasional joint..
    to me ‘sober’ relates to ‘drunk’ relates to alcohol.. [cannabis can help people trying to quit drinking]..

  • Dale Furno

    This is the biggest bunch of BS I’ve ever read.