science of us

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Cali Sober’?

Photo: FARBOD POORREZA/Getty Images/EyeEm

Recently, I saw a conversation between a few women I follow on Twitter about Fiona Apple, who was profiled by Vulture last month. In the course of her interview, Apple mentions that she’s stopped drinking, but has started smoking more weed instead: “Alcohol helped me for a while, but I don’t drink anymore,” she says. “Now it’s just pot, pot, pot.” This was the part of the interview the women were discussing. “Fiona Apple: Cali sober??” one wrote.

The term “Cali sober” here refers to people who don’t drink but do smoke weed, though internet definitions vary slightly: Urban Dictionary says it means people who drink and smoke weed but don’t do other drugs; an essay by journalist Michelle Lhooq uses it to refer to her decision to smoke weed and do psychedelics, but not drink. While the term is new to me, the behavior it describes is not: this is more or less how I operate. I’m not sober, but I rarely drink, and when I do, I usually have a single glass of wine. In my early 30s I’ve discovered that when I’m looking to unwind after a stressful week, or having a movie night with friends, I’d much rather smoke weed than drink a few beers. As a result, I haven’t been hungover in years. I also sleep better, and my anxiety (for which I also take daily Prozac, and go to therapy) is more manageable. But I also feel guilty about smoking, likely because I grew up believing that all drugs are bad, and that taking them makes you a worse person. Alcohol is, of course, also a drug, but everyone does that — at least, until they don’t.

“At my age, I’ve noticed a lot of people are at their ‘I’m going to stop drinking’ point, and weed has become a way for them to wean themselves off of other substances,” says Sara, who is 38, and asked that I use a pseudonym because of her job. Sara was never a drinker, due to the potential for drug interactions with her antidepressants, and says that smoking weed affords her the kind of social bonding experience she missed out on when she was younger. “I could smoke a little bit before we went out and I wouldn’t be as anxious socially,” she says. “I could pass around a bowl with friends and it’d be like what I didn’t do in college.” Even better, weed doesn’t interact with her medications, or leave her hungover the next day — and as anyone over the age of 25 knows, hangovers only get worse as you get older.

Naomi Fry, a staff writer at The New Yorker, cites similar reasoning. “I like Cali sober because for me it means that even though I’m getting older, and I take monthlong breaks from drinking occasionally, it doesn’t mean that my life can’t still be enjoyable,” she says. “It’s sort of equivalent to being a silver fox: your hair might be gray, and you might be taking it a little slower, but you can still be hot!”

Obviously, getting older isn’t the only reason to curb one’s drinking. “I developed a pretty big drinking problem throughout my teen years, and quit drinking on my 23rd birthday, which was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” says Eve Peyser, a freelance writer. Programs like AA insist on total sobriety, which works for some, and not for others. “Something my therapist said when I was getting to the point when I was ready to quit drinking was, ‘You do what works for you until it doesn’t work for you anymore,’” says Peyser. “I didn’t quit smoking weed because it didn’t have that super negative impact on me.”

That doesn’t mean that Peyser — or any particular “Cali Sober” person — doesn’t have any reservations about her weed use. “I definitely am very hard on myself for my weed habits,” she says. “In my fantasy of my ideal self, it doesn’t involve smoking weed. It involves having coping mechanisms outside of substances to deal with my problems.” Shannon, a friend of mine who has recently gone Cali sober, tells me she’s still “playing around with” how often she smokes weed. In the past I’ve half-jokingly told her I’m worried I’m “becoming a pothead,” a term for which my threshold is, apparently, smoking more than once a week. Shannon tells me she gets that concern now, partly because her girlfriend (who does drink) is unused to casual drug use, and was uncomfortable with it at first.

It also feels weirder, or more conspicuous, to bring weed out at a party (at least for those of us who don’t live in California, or Vermont), which makes “Cali sober” a somewhat solo lifestyle. “When I first stopped drinking, I’d go to a party and smoke a fat joint instead of drinking, but I didn’t have fun, and I felt kind of lonely,” says Peyser. She now prefers to smoke alone. Shannon’s the same. “If I’m going to be high, I do prefer to be with close friends or even just by myself, where I can feel free to be goofy,” she says.

I assume that for every pot-neurotic there is at least one or two more users who feel totally, uncomplicatedly fine about their rate and style of consumption. Or maybe everyone has mixed feelings about the things they do or don’t drink or smoke (etc.). Weed still feels more risqué than drinking, though alcohol is much more dangerous, and that’s part of what makes being “Cali sober” — or “weed edge” as writer Molly Lambert has called it — feel socially, if not philosophically, challenging. Maybe that will change if (and when) cannabis is legalized nationwide.

“For me, the stigma is totally gone, and I see it as just as effective as the medications I’ve been taking since I was a teenager,” says Sara. “I can talk to my parents about having smoked weed, which would have been unthinkable to me as a kid.” She doesn’t think her parents have smoked yet, but they’re open-minded, having had their own bad experiences with heavy-duty painkillers and since-recalled prescription drugs. Fiona Apple told Vulture that she used to take “too much” sleeping medication, and uses much less now that she smokes pot. The best thing for us may still be to consume nothing but water and vegetables and lean proteins — no alcohol, no cigarettes, no weed, no caffeine, no sugar — but for whom is that practical, much less enjoyable?

“We use things because we’re in pain, because we want to escape from our lives, because we want to relax,” says Peyser. “I don’t know if my usage is necessarily healthy, but it doesn’t harm me in the same way alcohol did.”

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Cali Sober’?