From Cannabis Slang to Celebration: The History of 420

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Apr 20, 2021 12:30:33 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Chonticha Vatpongpee/EyeEm/Getty Images

Cannabis smokers around the world have come to recognize and celebrate April 20 — more commonly referred to as 420 — by smoking, vaping or enjoying a marijuana edible. Some revelers have parties. Other folks take part with a few close friends. And some choose to celebrate on their own.

Still, as huge, community-wide events swell in size around the globe every year, the cannabis "holiday" is becoming more mainstream. Interestingly, as 420’s popularity grows, so do the rumors surrounding its origins. So, how did the term "420" come to be — and how did it evolve into a worldwide phenomenon?

Where Did the Term "420" Really Come From?

The biggest rumor surrounding 420’s origins? Many people allege that that number was chosen because marijuana supposedly contains 420 chemicals. Others believe "420" is the police code that officers use on the radio to let one another know that people are smoking weed. And, finally, another popular rumor that swirls around the term suggests that it stems from Bob Dylan’s song "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," because multiplying 12 by 35 gives you 420. Of course, none of these origin stories are true.

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Photo Courtesy: Cappi Thompson/Moment/Getty Images

In fact, the origin of the term "420" is much more practical. It all began in 1971 with five California teenagers, who were nicknamed "The Waldos" due to the fact that they always gathered by a wall outside of their high school in San Rafael. The Waldos — composed of Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Larry Schwartz, Jeffrey Noel, and Mark Gravich — heard about a member of the Coast Guard who had abandoned a cannabis plant in Point Reyes Forest. Somehow, they came upon a map with directions to the plant, so the group would meet up once a week and search for the plant. After all, if they found the plant, it was a ticket to free weed.

Since all of The Waldos were athletes, they’d meet up after their respective practices — at 4:20 pm. When the time came, they'd pile into a car, get high, and search Point Reyes Forest for the coveted cannabis plant. In the end, they never found it, but they kept using the term 420 as a clandestine way to refer to smoking weed. Little did they know, The Waldos had come up with a term that would, years later, end up being used all over the world as cannabis shorthand.

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20 Years Later, 420 Gains Popularity

As California residents, a couple of The Waldos had some pretty hip connections. Gravich's father was Grateful Dead's real estate manager, and Reddix's older brother, a roadie and Deadhead, was close with Phil Lesh, Grateful Dead's bassist. As such, The Waldos often found themselves backstage at Grateful Dead shows, where they would use their "420" code. Soon enough, it caught on with other Deadheads.

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From left: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead play together in concert. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

On December 28, 1990, Steven Bloom, a reporter from the leading cannabis-culture magazine High Times, caught wind of the term at a Grateful Dead show in Oakland, California. Amid a crowd of Deadheads gathering before the show, Bloom was handed a flyer that read, "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."

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Bloom relayed this to his editors at High Times. In turn, the magazine ran a story on the term, claiming that it was a San Rafael police code that meant "marijuana smoking in progress" — though it’s unclear why the High Times ran with that origin story. In any case, because of that article, the term "420" cemented itself as a lasting part of cannabis culture.

Throughout the ‘90s, popular media and events began to use the term, from Pulp Fiction (1994), in which all of the clocks in the film are set at 4:20, to the San Francisco-based Cannabis Action Networks, which, in 1995, hosted its first annual 4/20 in the city.

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420 Becomes an Unofficial Holiday That’s Celebrated Worldwide

For 30 years, cannabis users around the world have been smoking weed at 4:20 am and 4:20 pm on any old day of the year, knowing that other like-minded individuals are joining them — somewhere out there. And, on 4/20 every year, so many more folks are celebrating the day worldwide.

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Something about that sense of camaraderie adds a mystical element to partaking in 420, and, since, the unofficial holiday has gained so much popularity that cities and towns all over the world have started hosting parties and "smoke-out" events to celebrate.

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Two of the schools most renowned for their 4/20 smoke-outs are the University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of California, Santa Cruz. The festivities have gotten so big that officials from both schools have gone so far as to beg students to refrain from the celebrations. Try as they might, their pleas have not stopped students from 4/20-ing their day away.

Now that marijuana is legal in many states, 420 has grown into an even larger "holiday." Huge crowds get together, joints in hand. An, in places where marijuana remains illegal, revelers often use the communal energy of 420 to push for legalization.

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Legalization has also led to more formal 420 events. For instance, the Cannabis Cup is a well-known event that takes place in a different city every year. There, hundreds of vendors from all over the world bring their best cannabis products to compete for various titles and accolades. Now that cannabis companies can promote the day, many believe the scale of the unofficial holiday will compare to Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, only time will tell.