Why 420? Origin Of The Pot-Smoker's Holiday

Culture | April 20, 2021

Jerry Garcia, guitarist and singer for the rock group the Grateful Dead, smokes a marijuana cigarette circa 1978. (Photo by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images)

Even if you're not a stoner you know that "420" (April 20th) is the day when everyone partakes of marijuana, but whether they're waking and baking or just taking part in the time honored tradition of smoking a joint on their lunch break it's likely that they don't know how those numbers came to be a major part of getting stoned.

Beloved by pot smokers everywhere, 4/20 is more than just a non-sanctioned marijuana based holiday, it's a secret code into a society of smokers and tokers everywhere. Today, the term is ubiquitous. It's a part of pop culture that most of us connect to the '70s and pop culture, but tracing its origins is like looking for the stoner Holy Grail.

420 is somewhat of a mystery but its beginnings aren't as mysterious as they seem. Wading through the half-remembered history and legends surrounding this marijuana secret handshake brings up Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and an urban legend about hidden marijuana plants.

California Penal Code And Bob Dylan's 'Rainy Day Women'

source: pinterest

One of the most repeated urban legends about 420 is that it comes from the California penal code for use or distribution of marijuana, but on the state books 420 is actually code from "obstructing entry on public land." There's no code 420 in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, ground zero for the hippie movement, 420 is a stand in for "juvenile disturbance."

So maybe it doesn't have anything to do with law enforcement, how about a pop culture megastar? Bob Dylan is one of the few artists who connects the squares and the people in the know, so it would make sense for him to have something to do with making 420 into popular jargon. Stoners look to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" as the big bang of 420. If you multiply 12 and 35 you get 420. While the math is solid it's doubtful that Dylan sat down to figure that out. So who came up with the magic number?

The Waldos And Their Secret Code

source: jweekly

It turns out that 420 has nothing to do with Bob Dylan or tea time in the Netherlands. It can be traced back to a group of teenagers living in San Rafael California, who referred to themselves as "the Waldos" in the early '70s. The boys heard a story about Coast Guard member who planted a cannabis plant but was unable to take care of the crop. Unsure of whether or not the plants were real or just a stoner's dream, the group set out to find the crop in the afternoons.

The group met at a statue of Louis Pasteur outside their high school at least once a week at, ahem, 4:20 p.m before hot boxing in one of their cars and going out to Point Reyes Forest to find the abandoned pot crop. Waldo member Steve Capper told the Huffington Post:

We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis.

420 Could Mean Anything

source: reddit

The Waldos spent weeks searching for the mysterious marijuana crop. Every time they went on the hunt it was the same. They'd pile into a '66 Impala, smoke all the way out to the forest and start searching. They never found the treasure trove of pot that they were looking for. However, the 420 code word blossomed among the group.

They began using the phrase as more than just a reminder that they were meeting to go on the hunt for secret weed. Instead, it became a catchall for asking if someone was stoned, if they were holding, or if they wanted to go smoke. In the early '70s, 420 was just something that the Waldos were saying so their teachers and everyone not in the know was none the wiser.

The Grateful Dead Help Spread The Word

source: billboard

Without the help of one of the most important psychedelic bands to ever plug in their instruments it's likely that 420 never would have become the pop culture touchstone that it is. Waldo member Dave Reddix told the Huffington Post that the Grateful Dead used to rehearse on Front Street in San Rafael, the Waldos' home turf, and the boys would listen to the band practice when they had time. Reddix thinks that his brother probably told Dead member Phil Lesh about the code and that it spread through him. Reddix explained:

We’d go with [Mark’s] dad, who was a hip dad from the ‘60s. There was a place called Winterland and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.

Lesh doesn't remember if he heard the phrase during that era or not, although he doesn't doubt the credibility of the Waldos.

High Times Takes 420 International

source: high times

The Grateful Dead can only do so much as an all powerful stoner music machine. In order to really reach people with a catchphrase you need the power of the media, that's where High Times comes in. Once the biggest magazine dedicated to the stoner way of life got hip to the code they started using it in all of their materials, turning what was once essentially an in-joke among a group of high school students into a way of life for people around the globe. High Times editor Steve Hager explained:

I started incorporating it into everything we were doing. I started doing all these big events - the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup - and we built everything around 420. The publicity that High Times gave it is what made it an international thing. Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture. But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.

Once High Times made 420 a part of their culture the code word went from being a Northern California thing to a worldwide phenomenon that can be seen on t-shirts, posters, and everything in between. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't understand the significance of 420.

Tags: 420 | Drugs | Marijuana | The Grateful Dead | Urban Legends

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.