As cannabis culture continued to gain traction across North America following a period of renaissance during the 1970s, the term “420” also became widely adopted by cannabis smokers in the 1980s, though mostly “passed along from stoner to stoner as a completely underground grassroots phenomenon,” according to The High Times.
What is 420?
The term ‘420’ denotes different things related to cannabis and cannabis use.
Primarily, 420 is a slang term that was used by students to know when to meet up for a smoke session at 4:20 p.m.
Next, 420 also refers to April 20th, a sacred day in cannabis culture.
The Real Origins of 420
The term – 420 – was the brainchild of a group of high school students at San Rafael High School, California, back in 1971. These students collectively referred to themselves as the Waldos. These students started gathering at 4:20 pm each day after school to smoke.
When one Waldo made eye contact with another Waldo across the hallways at school, they would say ‘420 Louis.’ This was code for “Meet at Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 pm to smoke.”
As time went on, that term continued to grow in popularity. Then, when the Grateful Dead picked it up, ‘420’ spread like wildfire throughout the cannabis community.
A code used by high school students to refer to smoking after school became a globally recognized code. As we talked about earlier, the term – 420 – has come to represent a balance throughout the world for marijuana legalization activists, cannabis retailers, producers and growers, and smokers everywhere.
All in all, ‘420’ is hardly a trivial accomplishment for the group of high school stoners who referred to themselves as the Waldos.
However, the term was not only used to let each other know they’re on for a 4:20 pm smoke sesh. Before the Waldos gathered to smoke, they supposedly went in search of a legendary cannabis plant plot that was reportedly growing adjacent to the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard Station.
Unfortunately, their searches all proved futile. However, the term ‘420’ became a useful way to communicate, one teachers and parents never were unable to decode.
420 and the Grateful Dead
The Waldos would often hang out with the hugely popular band, the Grateful Dead. A huge reason the term grew as big and as far as it did was because of the Waldos’ tie with the band.
The 420 term spread via the fans of the band and its associated subculture. Interestingly enough, Journalist Steve Bloom (a writer for Celebstoner.com) was given a flyer back in 1990 that explained the whole story of the 420 term when Bloom attended one of the Grateful Dead’s shows in Oakland, California.
The Grateful Dead Flyer
In December 1990, fans of Grateful Dead circulated a mysterious flyer promoting a smoking event scheduled to take place on April 20th, 1991 in Marin County, California. The flyer also came complete with an alleged backstory for the term “420.”
“We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais,”
“420 started somewhere in San Rafael, California in the late ‘70s. It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress. After local heads heard of the police call, they started using the expression 420 when referring to herb – Let’s Go 420, dude!”
Although the validity of the backstory has been since disputed by members of The Waldos, the flyer and its variations (shown below) played a vital role in popularizing April 20th as the unofficial holiday of cannabis culture among the fans of Grateful Dead and beyond, as well as the term “420” after The High Times published the Deadheads’ flyer in 1991 and continued to reference the number in its subsequent issues. In 1998, The High Times recognized The Waldos as the “inventors” of 420.
On April 20th, 1995, the Cannabis Action Network staged the first annual 4/20 Ball at Maritime Hall in San Francisco, California, one of the earliest known instances of organized and recurring events in observance of 420, from 4:20 p.m. to 4:20 a.m. Since then, dozens of similar congregations to celebrate cannabis culture on April 20th have emerged under the coordinated efforts of various cannabis advocacy groups across North America, most notably at the Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, University of Colorado’s Boulder campus and University of California’s Santa Cruz campus in the United States, as well as Ottawa’s Parliament Hill and Major’s Hill Park, Montreal’s Mount Royal monument and Edmonton’s Alberta Legislature Building in Canada, among many other places in Europe.
On April 20th, 2000, San Francisco Gate published an article titled “Stoner Chic Traces Origin To San Rafael,” which highlights various myths surrounding the origin of “420” and credits The Waldos of San Rafael High School for coining the term, citing The High Times editor Steven Hager’s research on the topic.
On April 20th, 2005, Something Awful forums member Kirtaner registered the domain name 420chan.org, which eventually became the home of 420chan, an English-language imageboard mainly focused on the discussion of cannabis culture and professional wrestling, following a massive exodus of raiders to spin-off imageboards in late-August 2006.
Easter 4/20 was the simultaneous observation of Easter, the Christian holiday on which Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, and 4/20 on April 20th, 2014.
- The term 420 can be used to directly refer to marijuana. The term “420 friendly” is also commonly used among those who smoke and even those who do not to refer to people or places that are acceptable and open to the use of marijuana.
- “420 Blaze it” is a catchphrase used in celebration of smoking marijuana. The phrase is often used ironically to mock cannabis enthusiasts who identify themselves with the stoner subculture.
- In 2001, the forReal.org web site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Prevention put out a public service document titled, “It’s 4:20 — Do You Know Where Your Teen Is?”
- On January 1st, 2004, the Governor of California signed California Senate Bill 420 into law, which regulates marijuana used for medical purposes. This bill comes years after the term ‘420’ was associated with marijuana and indeed its number likely was chosen because of the existing pop culture connection.
- The term “420” has been routinely referenced in various popular movies and television shows. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High the final score of the football game is displayed as 42-0. Most of the clocks used as props in Pulp Fiction are set to 4:20.
- With the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, many hemp-based and cannabis culture products have taken on the term as part of their brand, including Atlanta’s Sweetwater Brewing Co. 420 Pale Ale, 420 Tours (low-cost travel packages to the Netherlands and Jamaica), Highway 420 Radio, as well as video games, record labels and musical acts.
According to Steven Hager, the editor of High Times, and other various sources of cannabis literature, the term “420” was coined in 1971 by a group of students at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, who called themselves the “Waldos” and congregated by the campus statue of Louis Pasteur to smoke weed at 4:20 p.m. The group initially referred to the meeting by the code phrase “4:20 Louis” on the school grounds, before they shortened it to simply “4:20.” From there, the code word began spreading around the city of San Rafael, a strong foothold for the fans of the psychedelic rock band Grateful Dead, and gradually, it became adopted by marijuana smokers across the rest of the country.
Due to the largely anecdotal nature of the backstory, the coinage of the term has long been misattributed to a number of urban legends and unfounded connections that became widespread as cannabis culture thrived across North America and Europe. Some of the most well-known myths that have been since debunked include:
- 420 is the penal code section for marijuana use in the state of California and the radio code for suspected consumption of marijuana within the Los Angeles Police Department (Section 420 of the California penal code refers to obstructing entry on public land);
- 420 is named after the birthday or memorial day of Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, all of whom had strongly identified with cannabis use during their lifetime (none of these artists were born or had passed away on April 20th);
- 420 refers to the number of chemical compounds that are found in cannabis (the number of chemical compounds in marijuana is 315);
- 420 is named after the time of the day at which Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann deliberately ingested LSD for the first time on April 19th, 1943 (the fact in itself is accurate according to his lab notes, though there is no connection to the coinage of the term);
- 420 is named after the number of the suite that Grateful Dead chose to stay at during their tours (the story has been debunked as untrue by the band’s spokesperson Dennis McNally).
Trailblazers seldom make history quietly. And so it goes with the origination of “420” and how it became our industry-wide favorite day of the year. There are many tales told about the beginning of 420. Some are based on truth while many others are based on creativity gone wild (perhaps due to an extra toke on a THC fatty).
In honor of 420, we thought we’d give some credence to the folklore and help disseminate the rumors from fact – in case you wanted to share the story and impress your friends.
- Code for law enforcement responding to calls about marijuana smoking in process. NOT.
- Best time to plant marijuana. April may be a great time to start growing cannabis, but it depends on what region of the world you’re in.
- There are 420 different chemical compounds that make up marijuana. NOT. More like 315.
- Coined from the California Senate Bill 420 which regulated medicinal marijuana in that state. That law was enacted in January 2004, long after the term “420” began.
If you’ve got a great story about the early rumblings of 420, we’d love to hear it. Our budtenders could use some entertaining ideas on how it all began.
But for the record, this is really how 420 went down:
A handful of athletes attending San Rafael High School in Northern California liked to hang out and get stoned together in the early 70s. In 1971, they learned of someone who had a cannabis plant in the Point Reyes Forest, made available to them if they could find it.
The owner of that crop could not tend to the cannabis any longer and it was theirs for the taking. So, at least once each week, after their sports practice sessions were over, they’d meet up at 4:20 pm. Intermittently on campus, they’d see each other in the hallways and classrooms and mention the term “420” as a reminder of the next meeting when they would get high and venture into the forest to search for that weed.
They never found it. Instead, the 420 stuck as their own code to talk about everything marijuana without the risk of being found out by their parents and other naysayers. But the connection to a cannabis culture quickly cast a wider net.
One of these high schoolers had a father who handled the Grateful Dead’s real estate acquisitions. Another had an older brother who was a good friend of the band’s bassist Phil Lesh. The kids would attend their concerts regularly, using 420 as a mention and suggestion to pass a joint their way. The term blossomed into a global phenomenon, in part from the support of High Times magazine.
Even back in the day, marijuana use was a lifestyle that supported the cannabis experience. Today, the experience continues to grow (pun intended). Some regions in America are more progressive than others but the cannabis community has gained more acceptance, and will continue to do so, thanks to quality-centric dispensaries and advocates like you.
But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.