“Cali Sober” – A Potentially Harmful Term?

If you have ever visited (or heard of) California, then the recently trending term “Cali Sober” probably sounds like an oxy-moron. 

After all, with its landscape full of vineyards and being the first state to legalize medical Cannabis, California is not exactly a symbol of abstinence. Indeed, if you go so far as to listen to the rock band Sublime from Long Beach, CA, the words “Cali” and “Sober” lose all compatibility.

So what does “Cali Sober” mean? California, (“Cali” for short) is a state often glorified for its hip, laid back lifestyle. Merriam-Webster defines “Sober” as “abstaining from drinking alcohol or taking intoxicating drugs : refraining from the use of addictive substances”. 

The new-ish slang term “Cali Sober” has been used to mean different things ranging from not drinking, but still smoking weed, to drinking and smoking weed but not doing any other (harder) drugs. Some people have used it to refer to smoking weed and doing psychedelics, but not drinking alcohol or messing with the “hard” class of drugs such as heroine, crack, meth or prescription pills. 

In all of its definitions though, the term “Cali Sober” introduces the idea that someone who has struggled with substances such as alcohol or harder drugs in the past, might be OK not using those substances, but continuing the use of marijuana.

Why “Cali Sober” Could Be Harmful to People in Recovery

From an addiction recovery perspective, the term “Cali Sober” could pose a threat to the health and wellbeing of people who are prone to substance use disorders. 

The use of the word “sober” in a phrase that condones marijuana use may be dangerous to addiction-prone populations because it can blur the definition of sobriety and make alternative forms of drug use seem appealing and safe. 

Trying to be “Cali Sober” could lead to increased risk of relapse on harder drugs. In addition to increased potential for relapse on other substances, regular use of marijuana on its own can be a self-harming addiction with serious psychosocial consequences. 

Harm Reduction – the Other Side of the Story

That being said, it’s not so simple. Most addiction experts recognize the advantages of the approach known as harm reduction, which acknowledges that “some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others”. The National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC) defines harm reduction as follows:

“…a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”

To give a simple example, if someone quits heroin or opioids and only smokes weed instead, it’s pretty easy to see that this is an improvement. According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids rose from 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017 (click here to read the statistics). Heroin deaths showed a similar trend, going from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,469 in 2016. By contrast, the CDC has not reported any deaths to date resulting from Marijuana use alone. 

It is worth noting however that the lack of Marijuana overdoses can be misleading. The CDC also reports that in some cases, overuse of Marijuana “can lead to unintentional injury such as a motor vehicle crash, fall, or poisoning.”

Also noteworthy is the fact that PubMed, a reputable medical journal, published an article in 2014 reporting on two known fatalities from cardiovascular incidents that were thought to be invoked by smoking Cannabis. After complete autopsies were performed, the scientists concluded the following: “After exclusion of other causes of death we assume that the young men experienced fatal cardiovascular complications evoked by smoking cannabis.”

Still, if someone formerly addicted to harder drugs like heroin or opiates has switched to only using Marijuana instead, this could be seen as an improvement from a harm reduction standpoint.

An Ex-Stoner’s take on “Cali Sober”

As a person in recovery whose nickname in college was “the Spliff Master”, this topic is dear to my heart. The use of a simple slang term may not seem like a big deal, and to people who have never experienced addiction, perhaps it’s not. 

However, after being stoned for pretty much 6 years straight, followed by 8 years of hanging around 12 step meetings, creating an outdoor adventure recovery program, and participating in various recovery groups, I can say for certain that there are many people in the world for whom the term “Cali Sober” could be problematic. 

From age 14 to 19, I was using pot heavily almost every day. I spent that portion of my life as a huge advocate of Marijuana’s benefits, and a general believer in it’s harmlessness. I thought Ganja had little to no consequences.

Now, looking back after 8 years off the stuff (with most of that time spent clean from all mind altering substances other than caffeine which is non negotiable), my perspective on the matter has changed. My own experience along with clear scientific research, now supports a different conclusion. 

Pot seemed harmless partly because everyone I knew believed it was “non-addictive”. It was associated with peace, love and sharing — a staple of hippy culture.

I never thought I had a drug problem because I used Marijuana more than any other drug, and never used the major “hard drugs” such as heroin, crack, or meth. I never felt I had an alcohol problem either because I didn’t like the feeling of being drunk that much. 

Marijuana had seduced me into believing it was consequence-free, but nonetheless I began to notice that my smoking came at a cost.

Getting high all the time came with lots of consequences including brain fog, more difficulty with memory, less ability to focus, and lower motivation. I became increasingly aware of how much of my time was devoted to getting, using, and being high on the Cannabis plant.

Slowly but surely, other addictions crept into my life. My use of psychedelic drugs, pharmaceuticals, and combinations of drugs started to become more regular. 

Eventually I realized I could never reach my full potential if I continued my behavior. It became more and more clear that if my use of Marijuana continued, I could not be the person I truly wanted to be. 

Marijuana was not threatening to kill me or even get me locked in prison (I was pretty good at evading the law). But I knew that the amount of time and energy I was devoting to it would hold me back from so many other things I could accomplish.

Research Proves Marijuana can be Addictive and Harmful

Don’t just take it from me. Research from the CDC clearly states that long term Marijuana use can lead to addiction, with approximately 9% of those who experiment with pot becoming addicted to it in the long term. 

The CDC also reports that “the number goes up to about 1 in 6 among those who start using marijuana as teenagers and to 25% to 50% among those who smoke marijuana daily”.

If someone becomes addicted, it means they meet the criteria for dependence outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This may be more common than you’d think, as the CDC reports that “in 2016 around 4 million people, or 1.5% percent of the population, had had a marijuana use disorder in the past year.” 

Despite the notoriously giggly effects of the plant, the problems associated with a Marijuana use disorder are no laughing matter. The CDC says Marijuana use disorder (amazingly, MUD for short) includes health problems; persistent or increasing use; and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home. 

Conclusion – Should people try to be “Cali Sober”? 

Probably the more important question if you’re reading this is, should you try to be Cali Sober? If you have any history with addiction, I would strongly urge you to embrace recovery from all mind altering substances, including Marijuana. 

My deep suggestion is that you give the full blown recovery road an honest, long term, damn good try first. After all, do you really want to risk another addiction holding you back?

My own story, combined with clear scientific research, suggests that the phrase and idea behind “Cali Sober”, could be a potential trap for people in the addiction-prone population. 

I have experienced the insidious, slow burn of long term Cannabis use. I have seen the way Cannabis tends to move a person closer (both physically and mentally), to other forms of drug use. 

And worst of all, I have seen how difficult it can be to finally stop an addiction that does not necessarily threaten your life, but rather threatens to slowly, subtly limit you and prevent you from being your best self. 

To top it off, research from the CDC shows strong evidence that Marijuana can keep your brain primed for addiction, while simultaneously threatening to become a highly detrimental addiction in itself.

While everyone must find the solutions that are right for them, I would not want anyone who has been through a struggle with addiction to get misled by the idea that just being  “Cali Sober” might be the right choice for them. 

If you are in that category, I suggest embracing a recovery lifestyle and avoiding Marijuana use that may either lead back towards harder drug use, or simply become its own addiction and thereby stunt the growth we in recovery have fought so hard for.

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