Cali Sober Is Peak 2020 Wellness

Trading wine for weed is redefining society’s longtime relationship with alcohol — and possibly even sobriety

An illustration of many diverse characters standing in line at a wellness/cannabis store, while the line at the bar is empty.
Illustration: Zack Rosebrugh

FFor Lisa (name changed), the decision to stop drinking was a long time in the making. Though she was only a social drinker, the 40-year-old freelance writer and mom found herself drinking more than felt healthy. In early 2019, she made a decision to stop.

“I was like, ‘All right, let’s cut out the booze and just stick with weed,’” she says. “And I’m really surprised at how great it’s been. I’ve been a drinker my whole life. I don’t know why I never thought about just switching to weed instead of wine.”

There are many reasons for the (mostly) millennial interest in kicking alcohol. As people grow older, friends couple off or get married or have kids, and work responsibilities can become more real. Often — though not always — the alcohol habits people formed in their social-lubricant-demanding youth no longer serve them in the same way. Pair that with the fact that in 2020, elective sobriety is a full-on social movement, and you have a lot of abstaining adults.

“People are realizing that alcohol doesn’t serve them in the ways that they thought it did, and as people get a little bit older — and by older, I mean past your twenties — there’s this growing realization that your body, at least for me, just responds differently now,” says Danielle Simone Brand, 40, a freelance writer.

Yet at the same time that people are increasingly cutting back on or cutting out alcohol, another substance has gone from elicit to legal: cannabis. What’s more, drugs like psychedelics are gaining mainstream respect for their antidepressant properties. The collision of these social trends has led to what many news outlets are describing as a new subculture: Cali Sober.

A 2017 U.S. study saw alcohol sales drop 12% in counties where medical cannabis was legalized, suggesting a less-than-casual relationship.

While there’s no hard-and-fast definition, Cali Sober is widely accepted as being semi-substance-abstinent with just one rule: no alcohol. Depending on who you ask, what’s left on the table is cannabis, psychedelics, or both. And while it goes against any D.A.R.E.-inspired gateway drug messaging, for many people, going Cali Sober is about growing up and choosing a healthier way to unwind.

If ever there was a wellness movement to capture the zeitgeist of 2020, this is it.

SSeemingly overnight, cannabis has transformed from a stigmatized street drug to mainstream wellness darling. In the U.S., CBD has taken over seemingly every market, cannabis is a $13 billion market, recreational cannabis is legal in 11 states and Washington D.C. and could soon be legal at the federal level, and public opinion is the most lax it’s ever been.

According to Pew Research Center’s most recent data, 91% of adults say cannabis should be legal either for medical and recreational use, or just medical. Just 8% believe cannabis should remain completely illegal. “I have so many mom friends that smoke at night before they go to bed,” says Lisa. “It’s just changed. People have changed their perspective.”

Not only have drugs like cannabis become less stigmatized, they’ve become embraced as a wellness antidote. “I need to be a little bit more mindful of the way that I treat my body, and to me, cannabis is a great way to treat it. It’s a way to actually have self-care and promote wellness instead of just something I use to obliterate or forget about the moment,” says Brand, who is writing a book about moms and cannabis.

Recent research shows that cannabis could help treat anxiety, manage pain, and help people sleep, among other health benefits. Considering an estimated 40 million Americans are dealing with anxiety, 50 million with chronic pain, and up to 70 million with sleep problems, it’s hardly a surprise that cannabis-based products have become so popular. And though most findings are fairly preliminary, this popularity is causing both recreational and medicinal use to surge — and possibly edge out alcohol. A 2017 U.S. study saw alcohol sales drop 12% in counties where medical cannabis was legalized, suggesting a less than casual relationship between the rise of cannabis and the decline of alcohol.

Americans want to forgo alcohol because it fuels inauthentic interactions, and results in physical and moral hangovers.

David Wilder, a freelance journalist and blogger who writes about psychedelics and considers himself (mostly) Cali Sober, also incorporates psychedelics into his recreational and health lifestyle, saying the substances have “helped a lot with easing my depression and anxiety, and got me into spirituality a little bit, too.”

Like cannabis, psychedelics are undergoing a cultural rewrite. There’s been a recent resurgence of research into the role of LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, and other psychedelic substances in treating depression, PTSD, addiction, and other forms of mental illness, and laymen of all stripes are experimenting with these mind-altering substances outside of medical settings in hopes of becoming happier, healthier, or — more commonly — both.

YYet it’s debatable whether a pot-and-psychedelics-only lifestyle is truly a better way to live. Despite preliminary evidence of the health benefits of cannabis and psychedelics, research has yet to prove that these substances are devoid of any negative long- and short-term side effects. For psychedelics specifically, current studies are mostly done in the context of highly supervised therapeutic sessions. People in the studies also typically have acute mental illnesses, whether that’s treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, or addiction. In those cases, any potential side effects are weighed against the illness, with the assumption that a certain amount of damage is a worthy price to pay for becoming mentally healthier.

Though some experts make the case that psychedelics should also be made available to healthy people, others are not so sure. Even mental health professionals who support and facilitate these psychedelic interventions don’t necessarily support people taking psychedelics on their own. Eva Altobelli, a Santa Monica-based psychiatrist specializing in addiction, for example, is an experienced psychedelic guide who works with clients to integrate psychedelic experiences into their therapy. But that’s the only way she believes people should be using these substances.

“You shouldn’t be doing any of this stuff without having a touchpoint with a mental health practitioner,” she says. “If you use a substance in a spiritual or therapeutic practice with a great deal of intentionality, with a guide, with a purpose, with a conversation about what you want to get out of it, then that’s more in alignment with the way Western medicine looks at pharmacology options.”

FFor Lisa, Jessica, Brand, and Wilder, consuming cannabis (and, in Lisa and Wilder’s case, psychedelics) plays a medicinal and recreational role in their lives.

“Who’s to say that relaxing at home isn’t wellness if you’re not using cannabis to get catatonic or crazy high, but using it to just enjoy your life better?” says Brand. “I mean, I think that’s wellness too.”

The fact that substances like cannabis and psychedelics provide a mental escape, and that that escape is viewed by users as net benefit for their health, is part of what makes the Cali Sober movement such a defining trend in this moment

Americans want to forgo alcohol because it fuels inauthentic interactions, and results in physical and moral hangovers. But Americans are also among the most stressed out people in the world, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll. It’s not surprising, then, that amid a move toward self-care and healthier lifestyles, people still want to take the edge off.

writer. www.tessalove.com @tessamlove

Sign up for Inside Your Head 🧠

By Elemental

A weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, by Elemental senior writer Dana Smith. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store