With the widespread acceptance of cannabis as medicine—33 states have now legalized medicinal marijuana since California led the way in 1996—and with access becoming easier and less stigmatized over the course of the past quarter century, pot is emerging as a popular alternative to alcohol.
There is even a new term for those using weed as a means to reduce their booze consumption: "Cali Sober."
The term cemented its place in our lexicon in the wake of an essay published in 2018 by a young writer named Michelle Lhooq when she moved from New York to California to cover the rave scene. Once she moved west, Lhooq realized alcohol was harshing her drug cocktail mellow. She decided to give up alcohol and harder drugs, but continued to use psilocybin, LSD and, of course, cannabis.
Other writers—why is it always writers?—have reported the same phenomenon of giving up alcohol for the herb, particularly among those we refer to as millennials. So now in our meme-centric society, Cali Sober has become a thing.
But can you call yourself sober if you enjoy catching a buzz from weed?
The subject of cannabis use in relation to alcohol abuse is a subject very near to me. Since I didn't die young and leave a pretty corpse, the things I filed under "sowing oats," or that were easily explained away when I was young, didn't seem quite so charming once I hit my 50s.
So I woke up one morning in 2016 and after four decades of excessive drinking, finally gave up the grape (and the hops and the malt and even the potato, as vodka martinis were a particular favorite on my cocktail menu). I have been living Cali Sober ever since.
There appears to be three schools of thought on the concept of Cali Sober. For the hardcore AA types, there is no wiggle room and the only alternatives to mind-altering substances allowed are coffee and cigarettes (along with the amorphous and mysterious "higher power").
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the users like Lhooq, who feel that an acceptable alternative includes moderate use of hallucinogens, which enjoyed a brief period of acceptance in the 1950s and '60s before the misguided War on Drugs took its grip on American society with the help of fear-mongering politicians who identified drug use with minorities and "dirty hippies" in the ensuing decades.
Finally, there are the MMJ advocates who see various forms of cannabis as medicine that can serve as homeopathic or naturopathic remedies for any number of ailments, including relief from pain or stress, sleep disorders or other afflictions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I fall in that latter category and, fortunately, I am not alone.
"I like to think of sobriety as 'harm reduction,'" said a local, longtime Tucson rehab professional who chose to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work. "There's a wide range of acceptance for medical marijuana, but the corporate facilities treat it as a class I drug."
Since it is federally a Schedule I substance on par with heroin or unprescribed opiates, large corporate rehab facilities view cannabis use as a dependency to be "cured" rather than a tool in a treatment arsenal.
The source, who has worked in all aspects of treatment since kicking his own habits decades ago, was skeptical about the value of cannabis as a helpful agent until health issues changed his thinking.
"I resisted because I thought it was a gateway drug," he said. "But recently, I've had a lot of health issues and it's alleviated anxiety and helped me with sleep and pain control."
The level of acceptance depends on the level of operation where a facility exists. Big, national chain rehab centers hardline against cannabis, but at a lower, more local level, the dynamic is rapidly changing and medical pot is "gaining acceptance to treat opioid dependency and psychosis," among other medicinal uses.
The insurance industry is playing a role too, since cannabis use alone is not covered as an indicator to get into residential treatment, according to the source.
"The treatment community overall is on the fence about it, but people are starting to ease up on things like marijuana and MDMA," he said. "Things are changing slowly. It's like a toehold on the beachhead."
When I first applied for a medical card several years ago in Northern California, my intent was to smoke weed without the hassles or worries of being arrested for possession. The first MMJ doctor I visited took cannabis so seriously as "medicine" that I was quickly confronted with my own perceptions and immediately looked at cannabis in a different way.
Sure, I was still just interested in freely smoking weed, but I also began to consider the drug in relationship to my life and the challenges that led me to self-medicate with alcohol. It wasn't until I stopped drinking that I had the opportunity to really feel the effects MMJ had on me.
It didn't turn out to be a miracle cure, but after four years of sobriety, I can safely say I would probably not be alcohol-free without medicinal cannabis.
There are any number of peer-reviewed studies enumerating the adverse effects of alcohol abuse and polling shows a majority of Americans are either pro-legalization or ambivalent about it at best.
Given that alcohol abuse can disrupt sleeping patterns and destroy brain and liver tissues—not to mentioned the havoc that drunks can wreak on themselves and their friends and families—it's not surprising that the research weighs in favor of cannabis as a safer way to medicate. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol use is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.
Additionally, recent Pew Research data found that an astounding 91 percent of Americans are in favor of legalization in some form, while only 8 percent think it should be totally illegal.
The economic indicators show an American preference for weed as well. A 2017 joint study by the University of Connecticut, Georgia State University and the Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru found that spending on alcohol dropped by as much as 15 percent in states with medical marijuana laws between 2006-2015.
Since the early 1970s we've been discussing legalizing weed. Fear-mongering—brought to you by the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries and spread by culture warriors with a puritanical belief that we can force people to behave a certain way—have created a mélange of conflicting laws that have led to confusion in enforcement, unfair banking and tax regulations and other problems associated with the half-measures you'll find in any endeavor.
Our prisons are filled with low-level drug offenders, and the over-prescribing of opioids is inflicting untold damage on our society, even as the architects of the problem shrug their shoulders and say there is nothing we can do but continue the arrests.
Cannabis should be legalized now, not just on a state level, but also on a federal level, where most of the problems with cannabis law can be laid.
If not now, when?