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What Is the Origin of “420”?

by Albert Jurado 5 min read

What Is the Origin of “420”?

The Hazy History of 420: or “Weed Day”

While revelers and celebrators of “4/20” can be found around the world, few of these avid fans know about its origin and how April 20th somehow became the official holiday for their favorite herb.

Sure, you’ve probably heard a tale or two about where some of your stoner friends think it came from, but despite their “enlightened” state after hitting the ganja, they likely got it wrong.

And while a number of these origin stories are both fun and entertaining, they don’t do this landmark holiday justice.

Fact is, the real story isn’t lost in the sands of time; it’s well-documented, and might someday be made into a movie with the cooperation of those who were there.

Do we have your interest now? Great! Read on to learn more…

The History of “420”

Before we get into the real story, though—and we will—we want to dispel and cover some of the “tall tales” that you might have heard as to how this holiday came about.

We’d leave them out, but to be honest, many of them are simply too good to ignore.

Some Amusing—but Inaccurate—Stories

The following are some (not all) of the backstories we’ve heard over the years, together with the reasons why they are incorrect:

  • 420 represents the police radio code used for a drug Actually, 420 isn’t part of any police radio code, for anything anywhere in the United States or elsewhere (that we know of).
  • 420 is the California penal code section number for certain drug crimes. Negative Ghostrider. Section 420 involves aspects of obstructing entry on public land. The number has nothing to do with cannabis in any other state’s penal code, either.
  • There are 420 chemical components in cannabis. Not quite, but close. To date, there have been a total of 315 chemical compounds and/or cannabinoids isolated from cannabis. Still an impressive number, though.
  • Jim Morrison—or alternatively, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin—died on April 20th. No, none of these tragedies occurred on that date. Anyway, why would anyone use something so sad as a slang term for smoking cannabis? Kind of a buzz kill if you ask us.
  • Adolph Hitler was born on April 20th. This is one of the oddest theories we’ve heard, and while this monster of a man actually was born on that date, there is absolutely no connection with that and cannabis. None at all.

The Real Story and Inside Scoop

Now that we’ve “debunked” some odd, funny and interesting theories about how 4:20 came to be, let’s get down to the real deal.

The real story begins with five San Rafael high school students who called themselves “the Waldos”. If you’re wondering why “the Waldos” (as we were as well), its literally because they liked to hang out near a wall. Seriously.

Two of the five members have chosen to remain anonymous, but Mark Gravitch, Dave Reddix, and Steve Capper have all come out publicly as the original Waldos. In the autumn of 1971, the group got a hold of a map that supposedly led to an abandoned cannabis patch somewhere in the nearby Point Reyes Forest. And like any teens with a literal treasure map, they couldn’t resist the temptation to locate and claim this magical patch of cannabis for their own.

The five allegedly met after school at least once a week for several weeks to go search, but they never found the plants; perhaps because they always got stoned before searching (but who are we to judge lol).

By all accounts, the group had a lot of fun looking, though. The plan was always to meet at an odd-looking statue of Louis Pasteur on their school grounds at 4:20 PM—some of the Waldos were on a sports team, so they had to wait until after practice let out.

On days when they planned to search, the Waldos would remind each other in the halls “4:20-Louis.” Later, they just said “420.” Eventually, the number (which is always said “four twenty,” never “four hundred and twenty” or “four-two-oh”) became a useful code word for talking about cannabis around adults—or simply a fun thing to say when offering a friend a joint.

How “420” Got from There to Here

So how did the Waldos’ inside joke become slang for smoking weed, known around the world by potheads and casual users alike?

Like an exciting rumor or piece of good gossip, the term 420 spread like wildfire through the Waldos’ other friends and the people they smoked with.

Yet “420” would not have gone far were it not for the fact that Mark Gravitch’s father was the real estate manager for the Grateful Dead, and Dave Reddix’ brother was friends with Phil Lesh, the Dead bassist.

With the social circle of the five Waldos including anybody who might be backstage at a Grateful Dead concert, “420” gained some very powerful champions with a large audience to spread the word to.

Deadheads (avid followers and groupies of the Grateful Dead) not only adopted “420” as a verb meaning to smoke cannabis, but also developed the idea of meeting at 4:20 on April 20th to smoke pot.

Sometime around Christmas of 1990, a reporter named Steven Bloom encountered the usage at a Dead concert in Oakland, California when someone handed him a flyer for a 420 event. He wrote an article about the event and the phrase for “High Times Magazine”.

From that moment on, “420” went global and quickly became an international slogan among marijuana users worldwide.

“420” Today

April 20th remains an unofficial international holiday for cannabis enthusiasts, with large festivals held at certain major universities—generally without the approval of the administration. Some cities give more official sanction to hemp fests on the same date. “420” appears as gleeful graffiti wherever stoners gather.

The number also appears in various contexts in the music world and as part of the brand identity of everything from beer to travel agencies (selling packages to the Netherlands and Jamaica, of course). Movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” sneak the number into the background of scenes as a sly wink to those in the know.

But perhaps the ultimate triumph of the Waldos’ coinage came back in 2003, when the State of California legalized medical cannabis for the first time—by passing a bill called SB 420.

No one has ever admitted responsibility for that one.

So Now You Know

Yes, now you know the true story of “420.” But maybe making up a few more false histories would be more fun. Maybe it’s the average length of a joint in millimeters or the temperature at which dry cannabis bud burns in degrees Fahrenheit. You never know.