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Where did 4/20 come from?

by Angel Ferrer 4 min read


4/20 Origins

Just about anyone who has ever been exposed to cannabis culture has heard the phrase “420” muttered in relation to getting stoned. Whether a frequent toker, occasionally dabbler, or someone whose interest in marijuana is purely in the plant's multitude of medicinal benefits, 420 has become synonymous with weed.

Often used in reference to the time, as in 4:20 pm, or the date of April 20th (written as 4/20 in the United States), 420 has also been a long time code for lighting up a joint or taking a couple hits off a bong with your friends. April 20th has become an international day for celebrating the cerebral effects of Mary Jane as well as a day of political protest, urging the populace to speak out in favor of the legalization and decriminalization of this versatile plant.

So how exactly did this seemingly random number come to be known around the globe as a reference to smoking pot? Rumors have flooded the cannabis community for generations, some seeming more plausible than others.

The Myths and Rumors Surrounding 420

One popular myth states that 420 is the police radio code for marijuana-related crimes such as possession, smoking in progress, or dealing. However, there has been no proof that any jurisdiction in the US actually uses the code 420 for anything even remotely drug related. The only known code 420 in the US is in the Las Vegas Police Department where 420 is the radio code for homicide.  

Some state that there are 420 chemical compounds in the cannabis plant, however, scientific research has only ever been able to identify 315 chemical compounds in any plant sampled.

Some rumors have also circulated that the number is in reference to various celebrity birthdays or deaths, such as Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. None of which were born or died on April 20th.

Other myths include Hitler’s birthday, which was indeed on April 20th, but why anyone would want to associate the joy of taking a big bong rip with a genocidal murderer is beyond me. Or the Bob Dylan song “Rainy day women #15 and 35”, which features the chorus “Everybody must get stoned!”. Though the number 12 multiplied by 35 does, in fact, equal 420, this myth seems more likely to be a strange coincidence that someone noticed while high than the actual origins of the number.

The Real History Behind 420

So if all the above rumors are false, what’s the real story? The true origins of 420 can be traced back to a group of five high school kids in San Rafael, California in the 1970s.

The five students, nicknamed the Waldos due to their preferred hang out area near a wall, heard rumors of an abandoned cannabis crop somewhere in the county. They decided to start meeting up daily on a mission to smoke up and hunt for this illicit treasure. Due to all of their extracurricular activities, the Waldos would meet up at 4:20 pm. The number 420 quickly took on a life of its own as the Waldos used it to reference meeting to smoke and search for the cannabis crop. Eventually, it became code for anything related to smoking up.

But how exactly did a slang term developed by some high school kids in California spread throughout the global stoner community? For that, we can thank the Grateful Dead.

One of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, got a job as a roadie for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, leading the Waldos to frequently hang out around Grateful Dead concerts both backstage and with the hordes of fans who would camp out outside their gigs. Somehow, their once private codeword seemed to catch on like wildfire. In 1990, a group of Deadheads in Oakland, California started handing out flyers inviting people to smoke “420” on April 20th at 4:20 pm. One of these flyers made it into the hands of Steve Bloom, a former reporter for High Times magazine. The rest, as they say, is history.

420 in Pop Culture

Pop culture is laced with references to 420, from books to movies and music. Some subtle nods to weed day can be seen in movies such as Pulp Fiction and Lost in Translation, where clocks are set to 4:20.

TV shows such as Mad Men, 24: Legacy, and the Nickelodeon cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life have all also included references to the number.

In 2003, a California Senate bill addressing the regulation of medical marijuana was assigned the number SB 420, though the clerk responsible for assigning the number has never been identified.

420 Festivities and Celebrations

Throughout the world, April 20th has become an unofficial international holiday for stoners and weed advocates alike, sparking celebrations, protests, and demonstrations around the globe.

Some of the biggest festivities include:

  • The Mile High Festival in Denver’s Civic Center Park.
  • The National Cannabis Festival in Washington DC, which features live music, educational seminars, local vendors, and history.
  • 4/20 Waldos forever Fest in Chicago which features music, food, and tributes to the Waldos.
  • So-Cal Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino, CA where various strains of cannabis are judged and rated.
  • Sweetwater Fest in Atlanta, GA. A three-day fest featuring bands like the String Cheese Incident.
  • 420 Roll it Up, Las Vegas, NV. An open-air music fest featuring acts like Ice Cube and Cypress Hill.

420 – Enjoy Responsibly!

No matter if you’re new to the scene or a seasoned herb smoker, everyone can appreciate the roots from which 420 sprouted, and the historical and cultural significance to the cannabis movement then and now.

We live in exciting times, with decriminalization and legalization for both medicinal and recreational use sweeping the country. We hope that you found this article from Hemper enlightening and that next time you light up you take a hit in homage to the founding fathers of 420 and how far we’ve all come together.