A woman smoking a fat joint at a hemp parade in 2021. S
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The Rise of 'Sober But', the Dry January Where You Still Do Drugs

Is banning booze but shovelling ket up your nose still a flex? And do you lose the benefits of alcohol abstinence altogether?

A few years ago, I had surgery two days before Christmas, and was told by my doctors that I couldn’t drink alcohol for five weeks while I recovered. This period of enforced sobriety obviously covered both Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and the whole of January. “If you can’t drink on New Years,” a friend said on hearing my news, “can’t you just do drugs instead?”


Reader, I did not do this as it was a kidney surgery. But, of course, many people ditch the booze in January for less life-threatening reasons. And many of the voluntarily sober are choosing to follow my friend’s advice: Out go pints at the pub, but cheeky spliffs can stay. No more tequila shots at 2AM, but an afternoon on shrooms is OK. Welcome to the phenomenon we’re calling “Sober But”.

Taking a mix and match approach to January regimes is nothing new, of course. We all know someone strictly adhering to Veganuary who scoffs at the idea of quitting the vapes, or someone hitting the gym every weekday before getting catastrophically wasted at the weekend.

When it comes to substances, a similar approach you might’ve heard of is “California sober”. While this might sound vaguely pejorative about residents of the sunshine state, the term is actually defined as a life free of drugs and alcohol – except for cannabis and other psychedelics. Essentially, it’s a looser outlook on sobriety than traditional “total abstinence” methods, which has been gaining traction in some addiction recovery circles. 

It’s easy to see the logic in this “sober, except for weed and shrooms” attitude, because neither are really party drugs – for instance, a friend of mine stridently believes shrooms should not be included in discussions of “sobriety” because taking them is “spiritual”. The concept of “California sober” is pretty contentious, though. Proponents see it as a form of harm reduction – researchers and campaigners have long argued cannabis and psychedelics are less addictive and damaging than alcohol – while opponents view it as a reckless slippery slope into other forms of substance abuse. But what if you’re not worried about full-blown addiction, and just want to curb your drinking a bit?


A survey for Dry January 2023 found that almost nine million people in the UK planned to take a month off drinking last January – up from an estimated eight million UK adults the previous year. It seems safe to assume that many of these people took a break from the booze because they wanted the health benefits of a sober period: fewer hangovers, better sleep, less liquid calories etc. etc. So what about the “Sober But” crowd? Could swapping booze for shrooms bring health benefits? And what if you’re doing Dry Jan, but still plan on shovelling coke and/or ket up your schnozz?

“In uni, when I wasn’t drinking I’d go out and do loads of modafinil,” Jerry, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, tells VICE. “I’ve smoked weed and done MD when I’ve been off the drink, too, and it was actually much better than doing it when you're pissed.” This may well be the case, but the real question I’m interested in is: Does it outweigh the benefits of cutting out booze?

“Alcohol, if used immodestly, is one of the more dangerous drugs,” says Dr Peter Grinspoon, a physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “In the U.S. alone, 100,000 people die from it every year and it can contribute to liver damage, dementia, and cancer.” He counts any form of Sober Jan as a real win. “If people aren't drinking for one out of 12 months of the year they get less exposure to this somewhat toxic substance. Maybe it even sticks and some of them continue to drink less, or actually transition into treatment.”


When it comes to “Sober But”, Grinspoon seems to suggest there’s actually a certain logic to taking your drug of choice without the lubrication of at least three pints. “Other drugs, when used with alcohol, are more dangerous than without,” he says, “so it’s relatively safer to take them in Dry January.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should, though. “Alcohol consumption often leads to hangovers, dehydration, and disrupted sleep patterns,” says Dr Giuseppe Aragona, GP and Online Medical Adviser for Prescription Doctor. “But continuing to use drugs while participating in Dry January can complicate the overall health benefits of reducing alcohol consumption.” While excessive drinking puts stress on the heart and liver, “recreational drug use can have long-term effects on mental health, cognition, and overall physical well-being”.

“Ketamine,” Aragona points out by way of example, “can cause dissociation and impair cognitive function, MDMA may result in a 'comedown', characterised by fatigue and mood disturbances, and mushrooms can affect perception and cognition.” Essentially, if it’s general health and wellbeing not just alcohol abuse you’re worried about, “substituting alcohol with recreational drugs may not be a healthy choice”.


Dr Alexis Missick, a GP with UK Meds, agrees that recreational drug use shouldn’t be seen as the lesser of two evils when it comes to substances and sobriety. “All of these drugs are metabolised by the liver and their products then have effects on other organs, like the skin, heart, brain and kidneys,” she says. “They all can have potentially negative effects on the body surpassing the feeling of nausea, vomiting, and uncoordinated movements. The negative effect being organ damage.” As a result, she suggests that “continuing other recreational drugs while stopping alcohol only for January may not be of significant benefit aside from ‘societal praise’ for making such a commitment to abstain”.

One thing that is clear in all this though, is that more people are making commitments to abstain than ever. Dry January going mainstream is just one symptom of a broader social shift about sobriety. Casual sobriety is on the rise, and a significant number of young people are reportedly trying to cut back on drinking and drugs – January or not. Arguably, what’s at the root of this shift is a developing understanding of addiction and substance abuse. There’s more awareness around dependency than ever now, and many people are cutting back on substances to regain control and purpose, long before “hitting rock bottom”.

As addiction is treated with greater nuance, there have also been shifts in how recovery is understood. “Definitions of what it means to be in recovery are evolving from abstinence for life,” Grinspoon says. “I believe there’s a lot of harm reduction potential in transitioning people from alcohol to cannabis, which is a lot safer in most cases.” 

Even if it’s not cannabis you’re keeping alongside your Lucky Saint, there’s still a case to be made for the “Sober But” lifestyle – to some extent. “Any drugs you are taking without alcohol are safer, period,”  Grinspoon says, finally.

Maybe don’t take this as carte blanche to simply swap your evening glass of wine for a couple lines of K, though. The fact drug taking is safer without alcohol mixed in certainly doesn’t mean it’s safe. Or that it’ll work out as the healthier choice in the long run. Drug and addiction specialists might disagree on the benefits of a “California sober” approach, but surely they’d agree it’s not really in the true spirit of Dry Jan to ditch booze for loads of modafinil?