There are all sorts of myths and legends about the name of the international day of celebrating marijuana. The answer varies, according to who you ask. Some might insist that it’s related to Hitler’s birthday. While others point to Bob Dylan’s multiplication of those numbers. Or maybe it really does come from the total number of active chemical compounds found in marijuana. Or, perhaps, the official “tea time” in the Netherlands.
Where does 420 really come from?
He pauses and thinks, hands on his side. “I don’t know the real origin. I know myths and rumors,” he says. “I’m really confused about the first time I heard it. It was like a police code for smoking in progress or something. What’s the real story?”
Depending on who you ask, or their state of inebriation, there are as many varieties of answers as strains of medical bud in California. It’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana. It’s teatime in Holland. It has something to do with Hitler’s birthday. It’s those numbers in that Bob Dylan song multiplied.
The origin of the term 420, celebrated around the world by pot smokers every April 20, has long been obscured by the clouded memories of the folks who made it a phenomenon.
The Huffington Post chased the term back to its roots and was able to find it in a lost patch of cannabis in a Point Reyes, California forest. Just as interesting as its origin, it turns out, is how it spread.
Where else do we see 420?
You would be surprised at how many references to 420 are in mainstream media. In the movie Pulp Fiction, for example, the clocks in the background often have the time set to 4:20. One person became famous on YouTube for competing on The Price is Right, and using only $420 or $1420 for all their guesses. Even the bill in California that was codified in 2003 to allow medical marijuana was called “SB 420,” although it is a mystery how exactly it ended up with such a fitting number.
In 1995, Cannabis Action Network held the first 4/20 Ball in San Francisco. It fittingly starts and finishes at 4:20. In the movie Lost in Translation, all the clocks were also set to 4:20.
Some people advertising for roommates request “420 friendly” ones in hopes of connecting with fellow marijuana smokers. Hidden in plain sight, the code is discreet to the uninitiated and obvious to those who care. Generally speaking, the stories revolving around 420 have been in large part a total mystery—until very recently.
What is the true story of 420?
According to the Waldos, the story of 420 begins one autumn day in 1971. The five friends had heard of someone – a service member for the Coast Guard, no less – who had been growing marijuana outside, along the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station, and was no longer able to take care of the wild crop. The Waldos had come across a hand-drawn map leading to the plants and therefore decided to go looking for it, in the hopes of finding a few free buds.
They planned to meet the next day after their sports practice, at a statue at 4:20 pm. The statue was of Louis Pasteur, so when they reminded each other in the halls at school to meet there at that time, they would simply say “4:20-Louis.” Eventually, it just became “4:20.”
They searched for days and days. They never had success finding the wild marijuana crop, but they often ended up just smoking marijuana together, and having a great time. They also inadvertently established a new code word that, at that time, only they understood.
For weeks, the friends met at 4:20. Eventually, they began saying “4:20” to each other to mean other things, such as, “Do you want to go smoke?” or “Do you have any pot?” or “Are you stoned?” One simple term for so many phrases, and yet the boys always knew exactly what the other one was saying. They could say it in front of teachers or parents this way, making it a very useful, secret code word.
How did the truth come out?
Because marijuana was illegal, and still shrouded in taboo and deception back in 1971, it’s a bit surprising that the true story ever came out at all. But times change and nearly half of the American population in 2012 supported the legalization of marijuana. In other words, it has become more mainstream, and less of a social stigma, to be someone who enjoys smoking marijuana. Three of the culprits responsible for the “420” term were finally willing to be exposed, so they began to tell their story.
The spread of “420.”
The big question that still remained, however, was how the term went from being a private code word used by some high school friends, to becoming the internationally recognized term for marijuana. It was widely popularized by the band, the Grateful Dead.
They were previously based in San Francisco, but the atmosphere began to change, and the hippie heaven of the late 1960’s just wasn’t what it once was. The band decided to move to a place just a few blocks away from San Rafael High School — the same place the Waldos went.
Quickly, the Waldos had formed their own connections with the band. One of the Waldos had a father who was a real estate agent for the Grateful Dead. Another Waldo had an older brother who had befriended the Grateful Dead’s bass player, and those two smoked together often. The brother, who was also familiar with the term “420,” now admits he must have used the term around the Grateful Dead’s bassist once or twice.
Because of all their connections to the band, the Waldos themselves had plenty of contact with its members. They were at the parties, the rehearsals, and backstage during performances. Their term stuck wherever they went, and wherever they smoked. When one of the Waldos even passed a joint, they used the phrase “420.” Before long, the community that surrounded the band had been exposed to the term multiple times. It began to spread, or as we’d say today, “went viral.” There were soon flyers for parties that included the term “420,” and one of these flyers was responsible for getting the term’s global exposure in 1990 and 1991.
Indeed, even the Grateful Dead bass player, Phil Lesh, acknowledges today that Patrick Reddix (the brother of one of the Waldos) was a good friend. Although he doesn’t remember exactly where the term started, he did say that he wouldn’t be surprised if it came from him and his brother’s friends.
As the Grateful Dead continued to tour during their most successful years in the 1970s and 1980s, the term kept spreading. It remained relatively exclusive to the United States until the magazine High Times took it internationally.
The magazine learned about the term through one of the party flyers with “420” on it in 1990. High Times then began using it as a theme for just about everything, starting in 1991. Any of their big events (such as “the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza” and the “Cannabis Cup”) had 420 as its central theme, giving the term consistent publicity until it was truly a mainstream term used around the world. When the Internet came about, High Times bought the domain name, “420.com.”
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1990s that the Waldos learned that 420 was just about everywhere. They heard it being used in faraway states, and even in Canada. They saw it in graffiti, and other vandalism. They realized that it was now a commonly used term, but with the wrong idea about where it came from.
High Times had been telling people the interesting-sounding story that the number 420 was actually the San Rafael police code for “marijuana smoking in progress.” While they had gotten the location right, they certainly had not been telling an accurate story. The Waldos decided to take action.
In 1998, they contacted the High Times and pointed out that no California police code uses 420, and asked them if they had ever looked it up. When the editor had to admit that he had not looked it up, he went out to meet the Waldos in San Rafael to see their evidence and hear the stories of other locals. Eventually, he realized they had indeed coined the term. He now readily confirms that there is no other evidence of the term being used anywhere before 1971, so the Waldos simply have to be given credit for it.
In 1998, the High Times published their first story about the true origin of 420. Seven years had passed since their first story was published that incorrectly described 420 as a police code for “marijuana smoking in progress.”
The Waldos were indeed able to give evidence to the High Times editor to prove their role in the 420 term. This evidence now sits safely in a San Francisco bank vault, although it has come to light more than once to provide proof for their claim. Inside the vault lies a stitched flag with “420” on it that was made by a high school classmate. There is also a clipping from the school newspaper featuring a quote from one of the students there who said, if given the chance to speak in front of his graduating class, he would just want to say “4-20.” And, in a letter from 1975 between two of the Waldos, 420 is referenced time and time again. In short, it is pretty convincing evidence.
So what’s next?
The Waldos have achieved unexpected success in their clever coining of the 420 phrase. They never would have expected it to become so widespread, and commonly known throughout the country, and the entire world!
They pointed out that they have earned no money from the term. This fact seems to both bother them and make them proud. Their friends still brag about knowing the guys who started 420. High Times even flew one of them out to Amsterdam for the Cannabis Cup several years ago.
They have considered making a documentary about their story, and perhaps releasing a dictionary of sorts that would explain the rest of the clever terms and slang they used during their high school days.
These days, the Waldos don’t smoke like they used to. They are now middle-aged men with careers and businesses, so they need their wits about them. One of them is even convinced that people who smoke all the time will have a “karmic cost” from doing too much of it, as something always seems to be going wrong in those people’s lives.
Regardless of what happens next, at least one of the Waldos claims he wants “One of the 420 guys” written on his headstone upon his death. It is safe to say that the Waldos are excited about their success. And why shouldn’t they be? They have had plenty of fun with it, including a 2002 reunion at the High Times Doobie Awards in New York City. There they got to present a lifetime achievement award to their favorite band – not the Grateful Dead, but the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
There was one other group of boys at San Rafael that tried to claim they had, in fact, invented the term 420. Their story was published by another marijuana magazine, 420 Magazine, but the Waldos never backed down. They are, after all, the only people with genuine evidence that reflect their claim. There is little support for the rival group, and now the story of the Waldos is generally accepted amongst the marijuana community.
What does 420 mean today?
There are a lot of uses for the term these days, although it is safe to say it is more than just a time or a calendar date. Generally speaking, it refers to a high state of mind. It is just as popular a term today, as it was in the ‘70s, ‘90s and even still today. There are always more stories about various shenanigans that occur because of 420.
A mile marker in Colorado, for example, has had its run of mischief. It (of course) marks 420 miles on the Interstate 70 highway, and it was stolen time and time again. Finally, presumably out of complete exasperation, the sign was replaced in 2014 with a sign saying “419.99” instead, much to either the disappointment or perhaps the utter glee of the local marijuana community. For precision’s sake, the new sign is in fact located a good fifty feet away from where the old one stood.
In Colorado after the legalization of recreational marijuana, April 20th was used as a type of celebration of this new freedom for marijuana users. It may have been the largest 420 celebration to date. Perhaps there will be more great news in the legalization movement that will cause even bigger celebrations to come.