Search IconSearch

What is the ‘California Sober’ Approach to Substance Use?

An addiction specialist weighs in on the rising trend of “semi-sobriety”

A close up of a person's hand and a half drunken glass containing an unknown, brown liquid

First, people started giving up wine for Dry January. Then gourmet mocktails were all the rage. One of the latest trends? California sober.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

More and more people are experimenting with cutting out alcohol from their lives — or at least cutting back. The Cali sober approach is creating a buzz among celebrities and regular people alike.

Psychiatrist and addiction specialist Akhil Anand, MD, explains what California sober is all about, and whether it can help you reduce harm from intoxicating substances.

What is “California sober”?

There’s no official definition for this approach to substance use. “The term is ambiguous and kind of a misnomer,” Dr. Anand says. “After all, you’re not sober if you’re still using mind-altering substances.”

Cali sober promotes cutting out certain addictive substances and replacing them with alternatives that, in theory, are less harmful.

Some people call themselves California sober because they use marijuana in place of alcohol and other addictive substances. Others define it as using alcohol and marijuana in moderation while avoiding other drugs.

If you have an uncomfortable or unhealthy relationship with alcohol or drugs, the California sober approach might sound tempting. But there are reasons to be cautious if you’re thinking of trading one vice for another.

“You’re replacing one addictive substance with another,” Dr. Anand notes. “It’s a slippery slope.”

Cali sober: Is marijuana actually a safe alternative?

Some marijuana fans claim the California sober approach helps them cut back on drinking. While that might work for some people, replacing alcohol with marijuana isn’t necessarily a safer choice, Dr. Anand says.

For one thing, the swap might not actually shut the door on drinking. “People who replace alcohol with marijuana are more likely to eventually start drinking again, compared to people who give up drinking and don’t use marijuana,” he says.

“And marijuana itself has negative consequences,” he adds. Marijuana can cause:

  • Short-term memory, learning and concentration problems.
  • Shot-term impairment of your judgment and motor coordination.
  • Decreased motivation to finish things that are important to you.
  • Short-term and possibly long-term paranoia and psychosis.
  • Short-term and long-term irritability, depression, anxiety, restlessness and sleep problems.
  • Lung damage (chronic bronchitis) and even various cancers.
  • Addiction issues as, over time, you develop tolerance, cravings and even withdrawal symptoms .

“And remember marijuana is still illegal on the federal level,” Dr. Anand says.

Semi-sober: Substance use in moderation

One potential pitfall of California sober is that everyone defines “moderation” differently. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as consuming three to four drinks or more in a day.

Some people can enjoy an occasional cocktail. But for others, it’s all too easy to go overboard. “Some people aren’t able to drink moderately. For them, the consequences of drinking can be dire,” Dr. Anand says.

For many people who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it’s more effective to cut it out completely instead of cutting back.

But if you’re interested in trying a Cali sober approach that includes some alcohol, Dr. Anand says it’s important to set clear goals and be honest with yourself. “If you want to drink less, be specific about how much daily alcohol use is acceptable,” he says. “If you can’t stick to those goals, you might need to seek out addiction support.”


Going sober: Drug and alcohol addiction help

If you’re toying with the idea of going California sober, it’s worth thinking about what your goals are. Dr. Anand suggests asking yourself some questions when thinking about how you use alcohol or drugs:

  • Has your substance use ever led to negative medical, mental or social consequences?
  • Is there an automaticity or compulsiveness on how you use?
  • When you start, is it hard to stop?
  • Do you experience cravings (desire it) or withdrawal symptoms when you’re not using?

“If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, that’s a red flag that you might need support,” Dr. Anand says.

For many people with a dependence on alcohol or drugs, California sober doesn’t go far enough.

“Substance use is complicated, and treatment should be tailored to the individual,” Dr. Anand says. “If you’re concerned about your use of alcohol or drugs, the best thing to do is seek support from your family, your doctor, a counselor or an addiction specialist.”


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Sad, exhausted parent holding newborn in cage surrounded by drug addiction possibilities
February 15, 2024/Children's Health
Can Babies Be Born Dependent on Drugs?

Neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, or NOWS, can develop when a birthing parent uses opioids, nonmedical drugs or even some prescription drugs during pregnancy

Closeup of person putting red and white capsule in mouth
February 2, 2024/Mental Health
Know the Dangers of ‘Gas Station Heroin’

It’s labeled as a supplement, but tianeptine is an addictive, dangerous drug

pill bottle surrounded by pills
May 29, 2023/Mental Health
What To Know About the Dangerous Drug Called ‘Tranq’

Xylazine is an animal sedative that’s behind an increasing number of human overdose deaths

spilled pills on table top
April 20, 2023/Brain & Nervous System
How To Help Someone Who Overdoses

You must act fast to save a life

Hand holding nasel spray product with store shelves of medicine in the background.
April 17, 2023/Brain & Nervous System
Narcan Is Now FDA-Approved as an Over-the-Counter Medicine

The result is a huge win for anyone at risk of an opioid overdose

Whippet canisters placed on top of deflated yellow balloons.
April 10, 2023/Wellness
Whippets: What You Need To Know About These Drugs

Popular among teens, these inhalants give you a quick high with potentially lasting consequences

Empty liquor bottles and glasses in front of a brown cloud.
March 12, 2023/Brain & Nervous System
Blackouts and Your Brain: How To Avoid Memory Loss

Excess alcohol and substance use can cause temporary and permanent memory loss

Two people wrapped up in a rainbow flag
July 7, 2022/Sex & Relationships
What Are Poppers?

A dangerous party drug, poppers pose serious health threats

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims