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The Meaning and Strange History of 420

stoners 420

Now largely considered the official holiday for marijuana users, 4/20 started its life as the slang of a small group of high school friends before becoming the accepted code for marijuana. Keep reading to learn the history of 420, the 420 original meaning, and what the day has evolved into since its beginning decades ago.

With mythology that includes the inaccurate number of active chemicals in marijuana, Hitler’s birthday, a fictional police code for marijuana use, and the music of Bob Dylan, “420” has had a storied, if not entirely true, history.

History of 420

In reality, the history of 420 traces back to five friends from San Rafael High School who first coined the term in 1971. The friends were known then as the Waldos because their favorite hang out spot was on the wall outside their school. In 2012, after much false speculation, two of the Waldos decided to go on the record with the Huffington Post to finally reveal the term’s true origin.

One day in the fall of 1971, the friends caught word of a secret marijuana patch located at Point Reyes near their school. The farm supposedly belonged to a member of the Coast Guard who could no longer tend the plants. A treasure map in hand, the Waldos intended to go hunting for free marijuana. After all, it was harvest season.

The friends planned on meeting at the school’s statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 pm, after sports practice, to go out to the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station and find the plants. The original term started as “4:20-Louis” to act as a reminder for the meeting time and place but was eventually shortened to just 420.

Week after week, the Waldos would hop into an old ‘66 Impala and smoke on the way out to where they believed the farm to be. The friends never did find the patch, but they did discover a great new code for marijuana. From then on, the friends would replace 420 for all references to marijuana, allowing them to talk openly about smoking cannabis without parents or teachers being any the wiser.

The story could have easily ended there, with 420 never being more than a colloquial term used among a small group of friends. But the legend got an unexpected boost from those paragons of psychedelic rock, the Grateful Dead.

420 Goes on Tour with the Grateful Dead

Following the collapse of hippie culture in San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s, many in the scene fled for more peaceful settings. After the Grateful Dead left the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, they settled in the Marin County foothills, just blocks from the San Rafael High School, where they formed several close ties to the Waldos. Eventually, after spending enough time with the Dead, either one of the Waldos or a brother of theirs believes they must have passed the term on to Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist, during one of their smoke sessions.

During the next several decades of touring, the Grateful Dead purportedly took the term with them to the far corners of the country and beyond. Suddenly, 420 was popping up in the most unexpected places, far from the counterculture enclaves of Northern California.

It was in 1990, when High Times picked up on the term, that it really took off. Steven Bloom, a former High Times editor, was walking along Shakedown Street, the unofficial “market” in the parking lot at Grateful Dead shows, at a concert in Oakland and was handed a flyer announcing a meeting at “4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing” in Marin County. The magazine took the term to heart and began incorporating the 420 code into much of what they did, taking the term mainstream. Centering many of their most popular events on April 20th further cemented it as a “holiday” among stoners.

420 Meaning in Pop Culture

Since then 420 has bled into every aspect of cannabis culture and is now widely recognized in pop culture as well. Both Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola set the clocks in their most popular movies to 4:20. The CBS T.V. show How I Met Your Mother makes repeated references to the code, as do Family Guy and The Simpsons.

Brands like Burger King, Ben & Jerry’s, and Chipotle are just some of the brands that have historically latched onto the popularity of the day and incorporated 420 messaging into its marketing materials.

Even the California Legislature used SB 420 for their marijuana bill in 2003, titled the Medical Marijuana Program Act. Although no one has come forward to take ownership of the clever numbering of the bill, it was certainly appropriate.

Every year, cannabis organizations and companies around the globe host canna-themed events, concerts and even cannabis legalization rallies to celebrate the significance of 420. Even those who prefer to avoid large groups will partake in the unofficial holiday by using their favorite cannabis strain at home.

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Meaning of 420 Today

Now that you understand the history of 420, what has the day evolved into since its beginning decades ago? April 20th or 4/20 has also become a sort of national holiday for smokers who gather at 4:20 pm for “smoke outs” at colleges and in parks around the country: including the 420 event at the University of Colorado at Boulder, “420 Day” at UC Santa Cruz, and Smokeout Vancouver, to name just a few.

Without a doubt, the cannabis community has latched onto 420. However, the day has grown beyond a “stoner” holiday. For many people, 420 has evolved into a day of public celebration to applaud the ongoing dedication and hard work of cannabis advocates across the nation. Completely prohibited roughly two decades ago, cannabis has since become widely more legally accessible.

Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is now legal at the federal level. Marijuana is also legally available for medical purposes in more than 30 states and legally accessible for recreational purposes in 11 states. Both the legal hemp and marijuana industries have grown leaps and bounds over the past few years and they continue to make great strives year after year.

Cannabis Beyond the Original Meaning of 420

As the number of people in our country who support cannabis legalization continues to grow, the significance of the history of 420 will increase as well. On this and every April 20, we thank the five friends who gave 420 to the world.

Visit our Cannabis 101 to learn more about cannabis, including how to safely use cannabis during these times, and our cannabis industry news page to keep up with cannabis business, politics, and scientific research.