The month of April is here and soon it will be time to celebrate people’s favorite cannabis counterculture holiday. All over the country, masses of cannabis enthusiasts celebrate on April 20th by holding activism rallies, medical cannabis expos, smoking festivals, and other cannabis-friendly activities. However, many of us are unaware of the history of 420 (pronounced four-twenty) and the stories behind this legendary number. Perhaps it was used as a necessity; a code to conceal cannabis use due to it being prohibited for most of the past century. Or maybe 420 is the police code for illegal cannabis use or sales. From an unmanned growing operation in a Northern California forest, to a Grateful Dead concert parking lot, to worldwide celebrations and calls for cannabis activism, let’s examine the legend, its origins, and why 420 has remained so popular now for decades.
The majority of us have heard a variety of stories and tall tales about where 420 originated. Most of these legends are just wrong or silly. 420 is not a number that is used as a police radio code. It doesn’t have to do with Hitler’s birthday. It isn’t the time for tea in Holland. It also isn’t the day Bob Marley died. Nor is 420 the number of chemical compounds that are found in cannabis (which is actually a lot closer to 500 according to the UCLA Health Department). 420 also didn’t originate with a group of hippies in the 1960s- though that is a fairly close guess.
The term 420 actually began being used in the 1970s with a group of high school students in San Rafael, California. A group of friends who called themselves the “Waldos” (because they hung out next to a wall) began referring to the number 420 as a code word for cannabis in 1971. As the story goes, these Waldos would meet once a week at a statue of Louis Pasteur on campus. The boys had heard about a local, unattended cannabis plant that had been left behind in a nearby forest and wanted to seek the treasure for themselves. The designated meeting time was 4:20 p.m. when most of the boys were finished with their after school activities and sports. They would pass each other in the hall and say, “420 Louis” as a code for the time and place for the rendezvous. Then, at 4:20, the boys would meet up, discreetly smoke cannabis (prohibited in California at that time) and venture out into the forest with just enough daylight left to try their luck at finding the elusive plant.
So, how did 420 go from a small group of high school friends to a worldwide slang for cannabis consumption and activism? Enter the Grateful Dead. Yes, the famous superstar rock band fronted by the charismatic Jerry Garcia. After high school, one of the Waldos got a gig as a roadie with the Grateful Dead during a tour and that is where band insiders and fans picked up the term 420. Fans of the Grateful Dead, known as “Deadheads”, began making flyers and distributing them amongst other Deadheads encouraging them to smoke at the time of 4:20 and on the date of April 20th (4/20). Interestingly, an article in High Times magazine published an example of these flyers in 1991 and the flyer states incorrectly that 420 is a police code, perhaps solving the mystery of where that particular myth originated.
Ever since the publication of that flyer in High Times, the number 420 has take off in popularity and use. No longer on the sidelines of the counterculture or being used as a code due to prohibition laws of the time, 420 was quickly becoming used as a term that rallied activists and encouraged discourse on legalization. Now part of the mainstream, cannabis was being discussed openly for its medicinal value and revenue potential. Additionally, the number 420 was featured in mainstream films and music. From artists such as Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson to movies such as Pulp Fiction and television shows like Family Guy and Ren and Stimpy, when someone mentions 420, the general public has come to an understanding that this means cannabis. Perhaps even more amazingly, a 2003 medical cannabis bill in the California Senate was named SB420. From a high school wall to the Senate Floor, cannabis sure has come a long way.
In the present day, cannabis use has been legalized in many states. Whether for medicinal use only or for recreational or both, the voters of the United States have called for an end to cannabis prohibition and the stigma that surrounds it. There has even been discussion of whether there should be an end to the celebration of 420 in an attempt to disassociate from cannabis’ recent past as a prohibited substance and move forward with an emphasis on education, advocacy, and medical research. It can be argued that until the stigma of cannabis has completely vanished and its many medical uses are generally accepted by the mainstream medical society, using the code of 420 can still be used as a call to arms and as a reminder of cannabis’ history and its uncertain legal future.