Updated on 1/31/2023

California sober is a lifestyle that involves abstaining from all drugs with the exception of marijuana and alcohol. While some may choose to do this believing that these two substances are less harmful than other drugs, it can lead to relapse and even moderate use of either can cause issues in mental health, relationships, careers, health, legal or educational fields. Therefore, behavioral healthcare professionals recommend complete abstinence from all substances including marijuana and alcohol for those in recovery. True sobriety means letting your true self shine through and addressing the underlying causes that led you to substance use in the first place.

California Sober: What is it?

“I hear this regularly: patients tell me that they are ready to quit opioids for good,” shares Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu. “But in the next sentence, they tell me that they are not going to stop smoking marijuana. This has been going on for a long time. It’s not new. What’s new is that we now have a name for this behavior, called ‘California sober’.”

What is California Sober?

The term California sober refers to the practice of avoiding all drugs except for marijuana and alcohol. Overall, those living the California sober lifestyle understand that drugs like heroin or cocaine may very well kill them — but they still turn to alcohol and marijuana because they believe that these are acceptable and “safer” alternatives.

Rubenstein reflects on this practice. “The California sober approach runs counter to how we work with patients; we encourage people to abstain from all substances as they work towards recovery. So, when people say, ‘yeah, this drug is a problem for me, but marijuana really isn’t,’ we like to remind them that they can become dependent on marijuana and may find it difficult to stop using. Then, we work with them to address the root causes of what led them to use substances in the first place.”

People choose the California sober lifestyle for a number of reasons:

  • They think alcohol and marijuana use is less harmful than other substances they were using.
  • Alcohol and marijuana numb painful emotions and offer an escape from reality.
  • These substances make it feel as though you’re handling your problems better than before.

But the reason to find true sobriety is this: when you stop using substances, you can finally feel free. 

Is California Sober a Problem?

While it may seem “safer” to turn to marijuana or the occasional alcoholic beverage instead of harder drugs, the California sober lifestyle could very well cause people to relapse back to their drug of choice. And that’s a risk many can’t afford. Plus, even a moderate use of alcohol or marijuana can lead to mental health, relationship, career, health, legal or educational issues, or worse.

The fact that the California sober lifestyle includes even a moderate consumption of alcohol is another major concern. Alcohol is highly addictive, leading to over 250 deaths per day in the United States. It’s the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Alcohol is to blame for almost 1 in 3 deaths related to driving (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021).

While marijuana isn’t usually directly connected to fatalities or severe physical consequences, marijuana is known to cause dependence among around a third of its users (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021).

Although California sober is being hailed by some people as a new type of sobriety, it’s not sobriety at all. It’s a form of harm reduction — not abstinence. Continuing to smoke marijuana after rehab may not kill you, but it’s comparable to putting a band-aid on the issues that drove you towards your addiction in the first place.

Is California Sober Safe?

In the field of addiction treatment, it’s recommended that those in recovery abstain from all substances — including marijuana and alcohol. Behavioral healthcare professionals like those at Cliffside Malibu know that individuals with a history of addiction are more likely than others to become dependent on any substance that is mind-altering — even marijuana.

If you turn to marijuana because it is a “safer” drug, you may very well find yourself on a slippery slope, possibly even landing back in rehab over time. While you may no longer have cravings for your drug of choice, you can become consumed by your use of this drug. Or the use of your new drug of choice may lead you to use other, more dangerous drugs over time.

The Benefits of True Sobriety

Being sober isn’t just about avoiding substances. It’s about letting the real you shine through.

The beautiful part of sobriety is that it forces you to feel your emotions fully. When you choose to be fully sober, instead of numbing yourself constantly with substances, you can open your heart to the world around you. As soon as you numb your emotions with substances, you risk worsening underlying mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression.

If you’re prone to addiction, using marijuana or alcohol will only allow you to continue to escape from emotional traumas that you haven’t yet healed from. Eventually, treatment becomes that best option as it helps you cement the importance of making healthy choices for yourself. In treatment, you realize that you are truly happier and healthier when you abstain from all substances.

“At Cliffside Malibu, we work from a clinical lens. We support our patients by challenging them to work on the underlying emotional and mental health issues that brought them to treatment,” shares Rubenstein. “Because when you use any substance, your impulses, insight and judgement are all going to be impaired. In treatment, we offer patients a number of different coping mechanisms. We don’t try to convince them to avoid marijuana, but we do try to help them understand the reasons behind their continued use.”

California Sobriety is Not Freedom

If you’re drinking occasionally or using marijuana regularly and you don’t believe you have a problem, ask yourself these three questions:

  • How is your drug/alcohol use serving you?
  • Why are you so attracted to using drugs or alcohol?
  • Why can’t you let your use of substances go, even temporarily?

Often, the answer to these questions is based on fear.

  • “I don’t know how to deal with the stress in my life.”
  • “I want to feel free again.”
  • “I don’t like who I am when I’m not using.”

The truth is that if you’re still using substances, you’re not free. The substances have simply become your crutch. Using marijuana every day to numb your pain is not freedom. When you’re actively using, your freedom and your choices become limited.

Find Help for Addiction

If you’re having trouble cutting back on your alcohol or drug use, or if it is causing relationship, legal, financial or career problems, know that addiction treatment helps people recover every day. Going to treatment is like getting a fresh start in life. You get a full education about your personal mental health challenges, and you learn a number of effective strategies to help you better handle stress.

Says Rubenstein, “Here at Cliffside Malibu, our goal is to help people work through the root causes of their addictions. By doing so, they start to feel better and become less reliant on substances to get them through the day. We help our patients get their freedom back.”

If addiction has consumed your life, contact Cliffside Malibu to help you get your freedom back. We can help you find the support you need and a strong sense of connection once again.

Britt Berg is a copywriter and content strategist. She has a passion for supporting individuals on the road to recovery from whatever holds them back from living their best life. Recovery is possible! You can find Britt on a yoga mat, watching live music or at the beach with friends and family.

Related Articles on Cliffside Malibu:


Alcohol Facts & Statistics, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism