Have you heard the term “Cali sober”? It describes someone who has chosen to eschew alcohol in favor of cannabis as a way to relax, unwind and recreate.

Let’s turn to that most modern dictionary resource for an exact definition. According to the Urban Dictionary, “Cali sober is defined as a form of harm reduction that excludes the use of all drugs including alcohol and only utilizes marijuana in moderation.” Some define “Cali sober” as a complete lifestyle, including the incorporation of healing arts like yoga and meditation—and possibly the use of psychedelics. In fact, Demi Lovato wrote a song entitled “California Sober,” the lyrics of which discuss her personal journey of healing and growing—and hint at the use of psychedelics as part of that journey.

Why would people choose cannabis over alcohol? For one thing, few people experience hangovers after consuming cannabis, while the same certainly can’t be said about liquor—and as people age, those negative after-effects of too much booze get worse. Some cut back or eliminate alcohol use after being prescribed medications that contraindicate with alcohol. The popularity of “dry January” is undeniable, and mocktails are offered on many bar menus today as people are turn away from alcohol for health reasons.

The complicated part is the use of the word “sober.” After all, the word is loaded with judgement. The Coachella Valley is sometimes referred to as “recovery valley,” based on the presence of the Betty Ford Center and many other well-known detox and rehabilitation facilities. The desert has long been a place for people to search for “wellness”—and that “wellness” is big business. Look no further than the recently announced $30 million expansion of the Betty Ford Center.

So how does cannabis fit into all of this when, according to many, “sobriety” only means absolute abstinence—including abstinence from cannabis? According to the Alcoholics Anonymous credo, total abstinence from all non-prescription drugs and alcohol is required to be considered “sober,” or in recovery. Many other rehab programs also support and teach this methodology to everyone who passes through their doors.

So how does cannabis fit into all of this when, according to many, “sobriety” only means absolute abstinence—including abstinence from cannabis?

However … it’s worth noting that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and the co-author of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, is known to have experimented with LSD alongside Timothy Leary as a way to improve his conscious contact with his Higher Power. So maybe there’s some wiggle room, at least for some, in the term “sobriety.”

Most certainly, some people should not use any mind-altering substances, cannabis included, based on their experiences with addiction and its consequences. Dr. Akhil Anand, an addiction specialist, explains in a recent blog post for the Cleveland Clinic: “For many people who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it’s more effective to cut it out completely instead of cutting way back.” Dr. Anand goes on to suggest some questions before toying with the Cali sober idea: Has your substance abuse led to negative consequences in your life? Is there a compulsion to use a substance? Do you have cravings? Is it hard, or impossible, to stop using once you have started? If the answer to some of these questions is yes, then perhaps complete abstinence is the correct path. 

However, people are different, and we all need to make lifestyle choices based on our own needs and desires. There is a huge gray area between “staunchly sober” and “over-indulgent.” Maybe the ethos of California sober can help define what the future of cannabis use looks like—a spectrum of use that includes actual health benefits mixed with a pleasurable but mild intoxicating effect that can improve social experiences without unpleasant after-effects.

While cannabis remains federally illegal, a majority of states have given it the OK in one way or another. If cannabis were considered less of a drug and more of a plant or herb, then perhaps the conversation regarding sobriety would be different.

The stigma of 80-plus years of cannabis demonization won’t go away easily—but maybe “Cali sober” is a small step in the right direction.

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Jocelyn Kane

Jocelyn Kane is the vice president of the board of the Coachella Valley Cannabis Alliance Network (CVCAN), the valley’s cannabis-trade association. She is also works as the city of Coachella’s cannabis...