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Is Being “California Sober” Really Being In Recovery?

The idea of somebody who is in recovery from addiction and describes themselves as “sober” having the occasional drink or puffing away on a joint would strike most people as more than a little incongruent. 


But that’s exactly what Grammy award winning musician Demi Lovato (who also recently announced that they identify as non-binary and would like to be referred to by they/them pronouns) claimed in a controversial statement that they made in March.  


Lovato revealed during an interview on the talk show CBS Sunday Morning that they still drink and smoke marijuana in moderation despite the fact that they are in recovery from opioid addiction. 


“I think the term that I best identify with is ‘California sober,'” Lovato explained.


The term California sober is one that predates Lovato’s highly publicized use of it. But it has a slightly nebulous definition, with some describing it as abstinence from all drugs except weed, some explaining it as only including legal drugs like weed and alcohol, and others widening the scope to include other hallucinogens as well. 


“California sober” has also shown up as the title of a track on Lovato’s recent album Dancing with the Devil and been thrown around in relation to other celebrities like musician The Weeknd, who described himself in an early August interview with GQ as “sober lite.” 


For him, this means that he has sworn off all hard drugs but still smokes weed and drinks occasionally, though not as heavily as he used to. 


On one hand, having sworn off hard drugs is certainly no small accomplishment for Lovato, especially considering that her opioid use led her to a life-threatening overdose in 2018. 


“I know I’m done with the stuff that’s going to kill me, right?” they describe.


Lovato was also careful to make it clear that their approach would not work for everyone.


I really don’t feel comfortable explaining the parameters of my recovery to people because I don’t want anyone to look at my parameters of safety and think that’s what works for them, because it might not,” they explained.


I also don’t want people to hear that and think that they can go out and try having a drink or smoking a joint, you know?” 


They elaborate in their recent docuseries Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil.


“Because it isn’t for everybody. Recovery isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You shouldn’t be forced to get sober if you’re not ready. You shouldn’t get sober for other people. You have to do it for yourself.”


But their statement still invited plenty of scrutiny from addiction professionals and others in the recovery community, especially given her status as a potential role model for others who have struggled with addiction. 


Music critic Tony Hicks, who is also in recovery, described her approach as “delusional and dangerous.” And reality TV star Lala Kent went so far as to call herself “offended” by Lovato’s approach. 


“You know, there are people out there who work their a– off to never take themselves out of reality and to never place themselves in an altered state. You know, they don’t even, when they have a cold, take DayQuil or NyQuil,” Kent explained. 


Interventionist and trauma professional Ken Seeley agrees. In a March interview with Entertainment Tonight, he said:


“I think the term ‘California sober’ is quite disrespectful to the sober community….I know a lot of people that work really hard to hold their abstinence and fight for their lives in recovery and to bring up this new term, ‘California sober,’ is so inappropriate” 


“The reality here [is that there] is no moderation for people that suffer with addiction,” he elaborates.


“You can’t just turn it off…To tell people that they could be sober and use in moderation is almost criminal, because I guarantee you if that takes off, people will die thinking that they’re California sober when there is no such term. There is no such thing,” he said.

April Marier, an administrator for substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, was also skeptical.

“I feel that the challenge with ‘California sober’ for someone with an actual substance use diagnosis is the risk of developing an addiction to another drug,” Marier said, referencing the well-documented fact that those who have an addictive relationship with one substance are at greater risk for developing dependence on another, and that those in recovery who start using any substance while in recovery are at greater risk for relapse.

This may be because relying on any substance rather than on healthier coping mechanisms to deal with negative emotions could leave the door open for harder drugs to slip back in if someone finds that the drugs that they have been using are no longer enough to offer them full relief.


Thus, to Marier, switching from one substance to another in the hopes of conquering an addiction would be about as useful as  “switching seats on the Titanic.”


“It’s not going to save you; you’re still going down,” she explains.


Though other professionals have put forth a less skeptical view on California sobriety, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that Lovato and anyone who has been inspired by her approach should seriously rethink the dimensions of their recovery.


Cutting out only some substances while still indulging in others can certainly be a meaningful harm reduction technique if one wants to lessen their acute risk but is not ready to commit to true sobriety, especially for anyone who, like Lovato, has relied on substances as an alternative to suicide


Yet though she may now be at a lower risk of overdose or dependence than she was when she was actively abusing opioids, the substances that she still allows herself are by no means safe.


The myriad dangers of excessive alcohol use have been exceedingly well-documented, and even marijuana, the most commonly cited “exception” in the “California sober” creed, still comes with a plethora of physical and emotional dangers. Thus, complete abstinence will always be the safest option for anyone who has suffered from addiction.


If you have found yourself struggling to say no to any substance, Reco Intensive is here to help. Our comprehensive treatment programs are led by a professional staff who can teach you all the skills you need to be able to achieve a robust recovery and to live a safe and fully substance-free life. To learn more, call Reco Intensive at (561) 464-6533 today. Let’s get back to a brighter future.








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