Substance Use

What is California Sober? Should You Do it?

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What is Cali Sober? Should You Try It?

California sober (a.k.a. Cali sober, semi-sober, semi-sobriety) is a somewhat new approach to ‘sober’ living that has varying definitions. For some, California sober refers to someone who is misusing or abusing substances simply cutting back their use. Sometimes, it can also refer to people using substances on a certain schedule or abstaining from hardcore substances, such as cocaine, heroin, or other stimulant or opioid medications while still engaging in marijuana use or alcohol use in moderation.

For people practicing California sobriety, this is an approach that allows them to continue using certain substances, controlling their use without the pressures felt when trying to completely abstain. However, becoming completely free of substances and living a life of sobriety is the only path to healing for good.

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse or addiction and you’re considering taking a California sober approach, reach out to Zinnia Health on our addiction hotline at (855) 430-9439. Our substance abuse treatment specialists can provide you with the tools necessary to decide if California sober is right for you.

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How California Sober Became the Pop Culture Approach to Sobriety

A new term has emerged recently, challenging long-held views and beliefs regarding substance abuse recovery: California sober.

California sober, also known as Cali sober, has been originally attributed to Vice freelance writer Michelle Lhooq, who used this term in a 2019 Vice article in which she shared what it was like moving from New York to California and how it impacted her substance use.

Using the term “Cali sober,” Lhooq was referring to the moderate use of certain substances, like marijuana, rather than approaching life with a strict adherence to total abstinence.

Demi Lovato Brings Cali Sober Mainstream

Although Lhooq’s article is the first known mention, she writes that it’s “a term some people […] use when they quit everything but weed,” meaning she may have overheard the term somewhere in her circle.

Regardless of who actually coined the term, a popular celebrity made it famous. California sober went mainstream thanks to actress/songwriter/singer Demi Lovato, who suffered a very public heroin overdose in 2018 after having six years of sobriety under her belt. 

She wrote the song, California Sober, (Released April 2, 2021; from the album: Dancing with the Devil: The Art of Starting Over) to address how she felt at that time in her life: she wanted control of her own life and was tired of being constantly micromanaged, judged, and labeled for her substance use. Eight months later, she denounced the song, saying she no longer supports this recovery approach and that “sober sober” is the only way.

Country Music Artists Weigh In

In 2023, country artist Billy Strings released a song also called California Sober (different lyrics/melody than Lovato’s). Featuring long-time country music star Willie Nelson, who’s own substance use is well-known, Strings’ version is a lighthearted look at this recovery concept.

Lovato’s song, however, explains her take on themes of substance use stigma, its resulting impacts, and how using in moderation helped her find a middle ground in her recovery journey:


“Trading judgment for freedom

Found somethin’ new to believe in

Somethin’ inside of me screaming

“Don’t be so hard on yourself”

Look up, somethin’ has shifted

My heavy spirit is lifted

I found myself”


“I’m California sober

It doesn’t have to mean the growin’ part is over

No, it ain’t black or white, it’s all of the colors

That I only just discovered

Now I’m California sober

California sober”

The lyrics1 here capture the essence of this flexible sober living approach and the all-too-often very personal journey of navigating recovery. While Cali sober is flexible, there’s a better way to reach sobriety.

Are you trying to overcome substances in a way that works for you and results in a healthier lifestyle? You might find some valuable insights when you understand the California sober approach. Zinnia Health can help. Call us at (855) 430-9439 to learn about treatment options that can help you heal for good.

California Sober is a Different Way to Look at Recovery

The traditionally regimented approach to recovery, which requires strict abstinence from all substances, could be considered the healthiest way to approach a life of sobriety. However, for some individuals, this approach’s inflexibility can worsen cravings and is difficult to maintain. 

California sobriety challenges the idea that the only sober lifestyle is one of complete sobriety. This novel approach preaches flexibility and a more attuned relationship with substances like marijuana or cannabis and other psychedelics while refraining from using harder drugs.

Benefits of a California Sober Lifestyle

Traditional sobriety offers multiple physical and mental health benefits, including long-term recovery, but some say California sobriety can be a better option. For example, a 2014 study found that people who recover from a substance use disorder (SUD) through addiction treatment and then begin using a different substance actually have a 50% less chance of developing an SUD with the new substance.

Some of the benefits associated with the California sober approach include:

  • Reduced harm
  • Less stigma
  • More easily attainable
  • Recognizes individual uniqueness

So, let’s look at these benefits closer.

Reduced Harm

The core of California sobriety is the attitude of harm reduction. Traditional, complete abstinence approaches demand total substance avoidance. Addiction, however, is a complex beast and affects every substance user differently. 

The concept of harm reduction recognizes this complexity and how the self-restraint and discipline required to totally refrain from hard drug use might not be as sustainable for one person as it is for another.

Cali sober encourages realistic goal setting—incrementally reducing substance use, therefore reducing the level of harm associated with said substances and minimizing the negative consequences of drug use, such as risky behavior. 

For people who’ve experienced past relapses or who become overwhelmed with panic at the thought of complete and total abstinence, California sober is potentially a viable option.

Less Stigma

Addicts face the stigma of drug abuse and addiction in their daily lives. California sobriety helps lessen the shame and humiliation experienced by someone looking for help because:

  • The fear of judgment is lessened or eliminated, so…
  • Asking for help becomes easier, and…
  • Recovery is flexible and more attainable.

More Easily Attainable

For some substance users, just the idea of cold-turkey abstinence is paralyzing. A California sober approach allows a compromise that some individuals might find more easily attainable versus all the issues—real or perceived—that the gauntlet of total abstinence presents.

Recognizes Individual Uniqueness

The path to recovery is a map with multiple routes, but a life of sobriety is not a destination. The entire process is a journey, and no two journeys are alike. The strategies that lead to long-term sobriety for one person may result in a crushing relapse for another. 

A treatment plan that’s truly tailored to the unique needs of a person is like having an Maps app for your life—an interactive map in which you can update the route as you go rather than requiring the destination’s coordinates at the beginning of the trip.

California sobriety recognizes that everyone has unique life experiences and faces different substance use challenges—that one size doesn’t fit all. There are multiple routes to recovery. This change in perspective could for much-needed comprehensive and open dialogues about the weight of addiction, its effects on mental health, and the societal pressures traditionally fitting in.

However, like traditional recovery techniques, California sober might not be the right approach either.

Why is California Sober Dangerous and Controversial?

Cali sobriety is a fresh take on recovery options, but it’s not without disadvantages calling for serious deliberation to note the potential dangers this method can present.

For example, critics of this approach cite its flexibility as its most dangerous aspect. California sobriety blurs the meaning of a sober lifestyle. This approach is considered deceptive in that it presents a misleading sense of security that can lead to a relapse.

Those who are not in support of this recovery method state that even moderate continued substance use could cancel out any progress the individual makes in treatment.

There’s also substitution concerns. Substitution involves a recovering addict switching to a new substance to replace their abstinence from another. This action perpetuates dependence, and can solidify the idea that the person needs to have a substance—any substance—in order to function, be happy, or live life. 

The primary goal of recovery is exactly the opposite: to help facilitate total wellbeing, a sober lifestyle, and healing for good. Someone who’s considering the Cali sober approach needs level-headed guidance and a clear head to discern their motivation and recovery goals.

Zinnia Health and You: A Better Approach to Healing for Good

Recovery is personal, and it requires an open mind from the person using substances, those in their support system, and the substance abuse recovery program they partner with. All parties must approach the treatment plan from a space of understanding to design the most informed treatment plan.

If you or a loved one has considered (or is actively practicing) California sobriety, Zinnia Health can offer another perspective. Call our addiction recovery hotline at (855) 430-9439 to speak to a compassionate addiction specialist and learn about your treatment options. The best recovery approach for you is the one that works—the one that helps you heal for good.

1Source: California Sober lyrics ©2021; Reservoir Media Music, Universal Music Corp., Sony/ATV Songs LLC, Sony/ATV Music Publishing Allegro (UK), DDLovato Music, Caroline Pennell Music, Marquise Cut Publishing, Crow S Tree Publishing, Asscher Cut Publishing, Project K Music, TurkTunes Music Publishing

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