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Examining The Demi Lovato And "California Sober" Backlash; This Time They Aren’t Wrong

Written By: Anton Sawyer

Warning: This piece is going to discuss topics of addiction & drug abuse. If you find these topics offensive, please look elsewhere.

If you or someone you know is suffering with an addiction, we have links to resources that may be able to help.

Examining The Demi Lovato And "California Sober" Backlash; This Time They Aren’t Wrong

Demi Lovato 2020
Vogue Taiwan, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the title may hint at this fact, I want to make it crystal clear: I am not a fan of Demi Lovato. I am not a fan of their music or their online bravado in most cases. Between the yogurt shop debacle and any number of actions or statements they’ve made in the past, I find her attitude to be childish and incredibly self-centered. Pushing that aside, there’s a more recent controversy that has put them in the crosshairs of many, yet these crosshairs are undeserved. I’m talking about them claiming that they've been dealing with their drug addiction through a process called “California Sober” (CS). This way of sobriety became a popular one during the Covid lockdowns and is one that I believe has a lot of merit.

This article is going to look at this new methodology of dealing with addiction, and how it could be beneficial to millions of addicts who are currently suffering.


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The controversy of Lovato and CS came about during a March 2021 interview on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Lovato said they’re now “California sober,” which means they drink alcohol and consume cannabis in moderation. The theory is that if you quit everything all at once, it’s going to throw your system into a tizzy and almost guarantee a relapse. By eliminating the most harmful of the substances you’re taking, and only indulging in substances that haven’t made your life unmanageable, you are more likely to have success because of the gradual reduction in your system.

In a 2021 interview with Healthline, Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, said complete abstinence from mind-altering substances that have the potential for addiction is the definition of “sobriety.” As we know, all attempts at quitting drugs fall under the category of harm reduction, which Kennedy elaborated on. “The term ‘California sober,’ i.e., using drugs perceived to be less life-threatening than ‘harder’ drugs that could lead to overdose and death, seems to fit under the harm reduction umbrella.” Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, PhD, clinical psychologist and media adviser for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, said in the same piece that while treatments for substance misuse have historically been categorized into a one-size-fits-all approach—aka abstinence—other approaches, such as harm reduction, can be considered.

Though the science is sound, some were utterly offended at the thought that what worked for one person may not work for everyone. “Vanderpump Rules” actress and model Lala Kent called Demi Lovato’s "California sober" approach to addiction recovery "offensive" to both her and other people who have gotten sober. "I don’t like to judge, but I actually think that that’s super offensive." She continued, "There are people out there who work their ass off to never take themselves out of reality and to never place themselves in an altered state." Add that to the fact that because a certain method worked for Kent, then she must make it known to everyone that there is only one way that works, hers. Lovato responded in an incredibly articulate way. "Telling myself I can never have a drink or smoke marijuana is setting myself up for failure because I am such a black-and-white thinker. I had it drilled into my head for so many years that one drink was equivalent to a crack pipe."

I completely empathize with her. One of the reasons I smoked pot for the first time was due to the forbidden nature of what I was doing; I was curious. When you have it smashed into your brain over and over again that a leafy green substance will make you see God and jump off a building (yes, my parents actually told me that when I was growing up), it makes you kind of curious as to the reality when you see your friends doing it and they aren’t dead. With that being said, I have also seen the dangers of addiction replacement firsthand.

I’ve written a lot about my personal demons, so I’m not going to rehash what can easily be found all over this site (for example, The War On Drugs (Or: How To Perpetuate A Failure)). To summarize, I used drugs and alcohol for a number of years actively, but with the help of my physician, I was able to get off all harder substances, such as opioids, and have been clean from them for a few years. My doctor had a different name for California Sober. She called it “We need to get you off opioids before you die.” She made it clear she would much rather me smoke marijuana for the pain I was in due to Crohn’s disease than take a ton of pills. We discussed at length the possible dangers of going from one substance to another, but the one thing I kept coming back to was something my counselor said during my first rehab stint when I was 18. One person’s rock bottom is nowhere near someone else’s in many cases. This is also how it works with addiction, it’s very personal, very different for everyone. My counselor made it clear that the best definition of addiction is when you are compelled by something to the point where it has made life unmanageable.

Someone who smokes pot isn’t immediately a drug addict. Someone who may drink every single weekend may not be an alcoholic. It all comes down to the overall impact on your life. With marijuana, it was something I could use and not have it become a whirlwind of destruction making my life a complete train-wreck. Opioids most definitely were having that impact. This attitude and methodology worked for me. By using something to help stave off the withdrawals, along with the accompanying stomach pain brought about because of Crohn’s, I was able to make it through. If I had to quit everything all at once, I know I would have failed.

Lovato understands that this process can work. They understand that rehab, Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous, and any other number of programs exist because of that reason alone: when it comes to addiction, one size definitely does not fit all.

The one critique I have is with how Lovato is trying to send this message into the world. One of the things they have never fully grasped is the concept that people will judge you no matter what you say and/or do. Having lived enough years in the limelight, I’m sure they have been spoken to by several agents and managers about their behavior. Lovato’s posts on 4/20 of 2021 would indicate these pleas are falling on deaf ears. The 420 posts are the ones that I feel are most damaging to the perception of their sobriety. These posts were also the ones calling into question how serious Lovato is about their recovery. Lovato posted a series of photos on her Instagram Story of themselves smoking a bowl in a hammock near the beach, with the caption "Happy 4/20." However, in light of the struggles with sobriety Lovato has made public knowledge, people had thoughts about their posts. "I wonder if Demi Lovato is concerned her 4/20 post might be triggering for people who are actually trying to stay sober (like real sober, not California sober)," one person tweeted. And there’s the flaw; if the public isn’t sufficiently educated on the nuances of a rehabilitation technique, it’s going to hurt the cause overall.

As much as I never thought I would write this next sentence, here goes. I respect what Lovato is trying to do. With the experiences I’ve lived concerning the myriad of different rehabilitation formats available in the United States, CS is the one I found was able to make life not a complete disaster. I think it should be more openly discussed as a viable option. Most addicts feel utterly alone, like every single choice they’ve made has done nothing but prove how horrible a person they really are. They don’t need to feel that way about their choice of recovery—especially if it could legitimately help. It saddens me to think that a celebrity with zero self-awareness and childish tendencies is the one taking up this cause, but for right now it’s the best we’ve got.


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