Where does the term 420 come from, and what does it mean?

Even if you are not a cannabis user or a habitual pot smoker, you would recognize that in popular culture since the last five decades, the number 420 has been a code for cannabis use or places that are ‘pot friendly.’

As a literal time on the clock, 4:20 is known among cannabis users as the international moment for people everywhere to light up their joints, blunts, bongs, or pipes. It doesn’t matter what time zone you are in, if it’s 4:20 on your clock, you should be smoking weed to honor the time. To dedicated cannabis users, who are up late (or early) this includes 4 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.

Where did 420 come from, exactly? The term originated in Northern California in the early 1970s by a group of high school students. One of those teens would go on to become a Grateful Dead roadie, and the term took off among the Grateful Dead and their followers throughout the 70s and 80s. In 1991, High Times magazine reported on the term and its association with the Dead by printing a flyer that was being passed out at Grateful Dead shows. The flyer stated that 420 was a code for smoking weed, and that 4:20 was the designated time to light up, and, further, that 4/20 was “the day of celebration, the real time to get high, the grand master of all holidays: 4/20, or April 20th.” Since the early 90s, the term has taken off as not only a code word for smoking weed, but also a day of celebration and activism.

History of 420 in California

‘420’ was first coined as a term in Northern California.  Since its inception in the 1970s, the number has become an international symbol for cannabis use, a time to smoke pot, and a legal movement for the cannabis plant to be taxed and decriminalized.

 It has become an urban myth that it was from a group of high school students, one of which worked as a roadie for The Grateful Dead. But as it turns out the story was based in fact. As the legend goes,  it all began at San Rafael High School, in San Rafael, California,  the  1970s. High Times  Magazine reported in 1998, that the code was created by a group of students who were outcasts, and  heavy pot smokers.  These students would sit against a wall and were known as ‘Waldos.’ The Waldos had adventures, and would get high, and search for hidden patches of cannabis plants in the forest.

Since school let out at 3:10, and many of the Waldos had extracurricular activities, they all decided to meet at a statue of famous chemist Louis Pasteur on their campus, to smoke marijuana at exactly 4:20 pm every day. This term morphed into the known code word for smoking pot.  The Waldoes walked around their high school campus saying ‘420 Louie’ to each other to reference smoking marijuana, because of the statue of Louis Pasteur. The 420 number stuck and became the number one reference to smoking pot.

The Waldos included Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich. As it turned out,  Dave’s brother got him a gig as a roadie for The Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and the band began to use 420 as a phrase that meant smoking marijuana

Throughout the 70s and 80s, slowly but surely, the Grateful Dead managed to add the term 420 to the vocabulary of all of their fans, as a secret way to mention anything marijuana related in public inconspicuously.  There were rumors that turned out to be unsubstantiated that claim 420 was a police code for ‘smoking marijuana in progress,’ or that it was the number of chemicals in the cannabis plant. Both of these are false. There was also a myth that the Bob Dylan song ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” aka ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ is a reference to 420, since 12 times 35 equals 420.  This also cannot be corroborated.

The Flyer in the 90s High Times

The term 420 went viral, back before there was internet or social media, through the iconic cannabis publication, High Times Magazine, which first referenced the term in its pages, in the early 1990s. It began with a flyer. This flyer was passed out at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California at the Oakland Coliseum in late 1990. At the time, an editor for High Times Magazine, Steve Bloom saw the flyer, which mentioned the history of 420. The text of the flyer was reprinted in the May 1991 issue of the magazine.

The Flyer read:

“420 started somewhere in San Rafael, CA in the late ’70s. It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress. After local heads heard of the police call, they started using the expression 420 when referring to herb — ‘Let’s Go 420, dude!’ After a while something magical started to happen. People began getting stoned at 4:20 am and/or pm. There’s something fantastic about getting ripped at 4:20, when you know your brothers and sisters all over the country and even the planet are lighting up and tokin’ up right along with you. Now there’s something even grander than getting baked at 4:20. We’re talking about the day of celebration, the real time to get high, the grand master of all holidays: 4/20, or April 20th. This is when you must get the day off work or school. 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. Just go to downtown Mill Valley, find a stoner and ask where Bolinas Ridge is. If you make it to Marin, you will definitely find it.

HELPFUL HINTS: Take extra care that nothing is going to go wrong within that minute. No heavy winds, no cops, no messed-up lighters. Get together with your friends and smoke pot hardcore.”

The article that reprinted the text noted that it was “from [a] flyer passed out at New Year’s Dead shows.”

This was the first official appearance of the term 420 in High Times Magazine which was  in May, 1991. From there the term slowly took off in the cannabis culture and community to now, where it is the world’s recognized symbol for anything relating to cannabis.

High Times reported in 1998 a bit of history as to their own part in making 420 a popular term:

“420” as a euphemism for pot smoking first appeared in High Times in the May ’91 issue, after a photocopied flyer arrived in the hands of Steve Bloom at a Dead show. HT’s resident Deadhead, Bloom jumped on the expression and spread it around the office. It began making frequent appearances in the Hemp 100 and, in the May ’97 issue.

When, in 1998, High Times editors went to interview the original Waldos, he found evidence that the term was frequently used by the Waldos in the 70s. He had many letters postmarked from the early ‘70s, all of which contained references to 420” (High Times, Dec 1998, pg. 12).

4:20 as a time of day to smoke.

As a literal time on the clock, 4:20 is known among cannabis users as the international moment for people everywhere to light up their joints, blunts, bongs, or pipes. It doesn’t matter in what time zone you are in, if it’s 4:20 on your clock, you should be smoking weed. To dedicated cannabis users, who are up late (or early) this includes 4 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.

4/20 as a day for “protest” events.

420 has also become a major fuel for protests and political action related to cannabis reform and policy when it comes to legalization and decriminalization.

In California, 2003 saw the passing of the Senate Bill 420(SB 420) which solidified the legal use of medical marijuana, as first proposed with the 1996 CA Compassionate Use Act, also known as Prop 215.

In 2020, the state of Oregon also passed its own cannabis legislation, with H. R. 420, Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act.

The day itself of April 20, has been known to be an International Marijuana Holiday where cannabis use and pot smoking, vaping and the use of edibles are celebrated all day, and especially at 4:20 in the afternoon. Several major cities such as San Francisco, Denver and even college campuses like UC Berkeley, have annual smoke out events on 420, where people have gathered in public spaces to all light up and smoke pot at once, when the clock strikes 420.

420 has also had a political connotation attached to it in recent years with heated and loud, in-your -face protests on the day of April 20th around the world.  Among the many examples of this include Canada,  where a 420 protest took over Parliament in 2018, and Washington DC where 420 protesters gave free joints to members of Congress in 2017.

There are also 420 events and protests  throughout the  United States from New York, Mexico and even Australia.

This year there are tons of 420 celebrations that include movies, comedy, and of course music festivals, as is expected.

This year, one of the biggest hip hop 420 concerts is the 420 On the Rocks in Morrison Colorado. It begins on April 19th, with performances by Ice Cube, Too Short, E-40 and legendary cannabis aficionado rappers Cypress Hill, who usually make it a point to perform every year on or around the 420 holiday.

And, although it is on April 30, there is another  420 themed rap  music and hip hop festival called The Smokers Club, in San Bernardino in 2022. This festival will feature appearances by Wiz Khalifa,  Kid Cudi, Berner, A$AP ROCKY, and many more cannabis loving, 420  friendly musical artists.

Due to so many people getting together and smoking pot or consuming cannabis on April 20, every year it has come to the point where certain law enforcement agencies unofficially ‘look the other way.’ Some police departments have even been known to partake in the day with various puns and jokes, hinting at 420 in some way.

4/20 in the Recreational Era

Now that recreational cannabis is legal for adults in most states, 420 has become an unofficial holiday for cannabis users, especially in California, and places like Colorado, Oregon, Washington and other cannabis friendly states, and cities around the world.

For cannabis farmers, business owners and entrepreneurs, as well as state governments, the popularity and demand for cannabis growing only means one thing: revenue. This cash flow increased year by year.  The cannabis industry is booming, and sales are increasing exponentially. During the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic lockdown, sales of cannabis went through the roof. Now as the emergency begins to end, sales are still beating all-time records.

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