When Sarah, a writer and illustrator who lives in Brooklyn, refers to herself as sober, she’s part of an increasingly visible trend that defines that term in relation to alcohol use only.
“At least for my wide social circle in NYC, that term mostly refers to alcohol use, probably because being social in New York is so alcohol-focused,” said Sarah, who asked to go by a pseudonym, as cannabis use is still illegal federally in the United States.
She stopped drinking four years ago because she found it actually inhibited her ability to enjoy herself because she became intoxicated after just a drink. “Plus, I found myself drinking in order to make decisions I didn’t feel 100% good about, like, ‘Oh, if I get drunk, I can do this or that and not feel bad about it,’” she said. “So I just quit entirely.”
But Sarah does still use cannabis occasionally, both recreationally and to relieve anxiety.
It’s hard to quantify how many other people have similar relationships with alcohol and cannabis, but social interest in sobriety is increasing just as legal cannabis becomes more available, and increasingly associated with an overall trend toward wellness.
Whether people who don’t drink alcohol but do use cannabis refer to themselves as Cali sober, sober smokers, or something else, the apparent trend for that lifestyle choice makes sense in the wider cultural context.
“With all the non-alcoholic aperitifs and drink options in 2019, I think it’s a lot more common for people to not drink today than it was even five years ago,” Sarah said. “Combine that with relaxing ideas about cannabis use, and I think most people understand how the two drugs can affect us so differently.”
Changing attitudes on weed
2019 was the first full year of legal recreational cannabis in Canada, and although cannabis remains federally illegal in the US, many states are loosening restrictions or legalizing it.
So far, cannabis use in Canada—where both medical and recreational weed are legal across the country—doesn’t appear to be changing significantly post-legalization.
In mid-2019 about 4.9 million Canadians aged 15 or older reported using cannabis in the previous three months, according to Statistics Canada. That was unchanged from a year earlier, before recreational cannabis legalization came into effect in Canada.
But attitudes about cannabis use continue to shift over time. In the days before federal legalization in Canada, an Abacus poll found that 70% of Canadians either supported legalization or were fine with it.
Half of those Canadians said that cannabis was no worse to consume than alcohol, and another 26% thought cannabis represented the better choice. People under the age of 30 were particularly likely to think cannabis was better to consume, or no better or worse to consume, than alcohol.
At the same time, an overall trend toward wellness—which covers everything from diets and cleanses to crystals and essential oils—continues to grow, bringing cannabis along as awareness about its uses expands like chia seeds in a green smoothie.
What it means to be ‘Cali sober’
Rightly or wrongly, California has long been seen as the epicentre of North American wellness trends.
Some of this impression comes from the state’s status as the primary home of the entertainment industry and the people who work in it, although this stereotype is hardly a consistent reality—it’s a large and populous state, after all, with nearly as many people in it as are in Canada.
Nevertheless, California’s enduring, if complicated, reputation for wellness is increasingly colliding with another growing industry: cannabis. That takes many forms, from the state’s legal medical cards to the wellness industry’s swift adoption of CBD.
In a 2019 story for Vice , Michelle Lhooq described a particular kind of sobriety that allows for cannabis use (and in Lhooq’s case, the use of psychedelics).
Lhooq coined her move away from alcohol and party-associated drugs like cocaine toward cannabis and psychedelics as “California sober,” or “Cali sober” though it’s a term not everyone identifies with.
“My boyfriend was born and grew up in Los Angeles, and visibly cringes every time someone uses the word ‘Cali,’” Sarah said. “I asked him about the phrase and, yeah, he cringed. ALL my friends from California are always like, ‘Don’t call it Cali!’”
Different definitions of sobriety
Whatever it’s called, not everybody is on board with a definition of sobriety that includes cannabis.
In June 2019, the New York Times published an article about the “sober curious” trend—people who are choosing to drink less or abstain from alcohol entirely simply because it’s healthier, or they want to—and not necessarily because they’re dealing with an addiction.
Holly Glenn Whitaker, the founder of sobriety school Tempest, told Refinery 29 that framing sobriety as a trend or product strips it of its meaning. And in an article for The Walrus, reporter Ama Scriver pointed out that some of the marketing around cannabis and wellness is ableist—but also looked at how words like “clean” and “sober” can have their own problems.
Some critics feel that sobriety isn’t a trend and the term ‘Cali sober’ makes light of addiction. Others feel that terms like ‘clean’ and ‘sober’ have their own problems.
Meanwhile, two of the best-known organizations for people who identify as sober—Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous—are staying out of the discussion.
When contacted for comment for this article, a spokesperson from Alcoholics Anonymous said that it is AA policy not to develop or offer opinions on any cause, sober trends, or even the subject of alcohol, in order to avoid distraction from its primary purpose of helping alcoholics who want to stay sober.
The debate about where cannabis fits into sobriety is in continual evolution, but at this point, Sarah says she hasn’t personally experienced much tension related to her choices.
“Maybe if I didn’t drink and was super judgemental about it at parties, people would push back on my cannabis use or think it was strange. But it’s all a personal decision for me, and basically a social non-issue at his point,” she said.
“If someone judges that, I think that says a lot more about their own relationship with drugs and alcohol than mine.”