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The History of 420

By Danyal Swan September 25, 2021

April 20th is a special date in the cannabis community. Medical and recreational users alike are getting ready to “blaze up” in commemoration of the holiday and discuss the age-old question, “What does 420 actually mean?”

The majority of stories floating around the internet, like a game of whisper down the lane or telephone, are to be taken like any other story on the internet: with a grain of salt and a heavy dose of skepticism.

A quick google search reveals there is no shortage of explanations for the reason people celebrate marijuana on 4/20. Common myths include 420 being an old police code to identify marijuana use, 420 being the best time to plant/water/trim marijuana, or even that the number is Amsterdam’s teatime. But if none of those explanations are right, where did the term 420 come from and what does it really mean, if anything?

What Does 420 Actually Mean?

Woman smoking a marijuana

While the association of the term 420 with weed was later popularized by a famous rock band, the true origin story starts with a small group of high school students in San Rafael, California. Put simply, 420 originally referred quite literally to 4:20 pm—the meeting time for the group of friends to reconvene after school for extracurriculars of their own making: to smoke and search for a patch of abandoned marijuana near Point Reyes. 

This group called themselves the Waldos for the fact that they met at a wall after their sports and other after-school activities were over. After hearing rumors that a local coast guard had cultivated and left a hidden crop of weed, the Waldos began a fruitless search for the legendary patch. And, while eventually the group stopped searching, they never stopped using the codeword “420” as a signal to smoke after school. This code was soon taken to the road.

There is no shortage of marijuana stories when it comes to the Grateful Dead. The band, fondly referred to as “the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world,” were busted for marijuana in the ‘60s in their hometown of San Francisco, and the strain Chem Dog, used to create coveted strains like Sour Diesel, was both discovered and sold at the festival-like Dead concerts.

A member of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, soon joined the Grateful Dead on tour as their roadie thanks to his connection with bassist Phil Leash. The term that had spread like wildfire through the Waldos’ high school was soon adopted by the musicians as they toured cities across America.

The term 420 gave the Grateful Dead a new way to communicate their marijuana-friendly attitudes with their like-minded fans. They began using the codeword for weed at their shows and fans were just as enthused to use it as it allowed them to discreetly connect with other individuals with the same interests. Eventually, the band began to use 420 as an element in their branding, even going so far as to use it on their album covers, bringing the mystery into the mainstream.

Entering the Mainstream

One such album cover was discovered in 1990 by High Times Magazine editor Steve Bloom as he was handed a flier in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert. It 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. Tamaplais.”

This yellow flier seemed quite informative at the time. It provided some background about the term, stating “420 started somewhere in San Rafael, California 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!”

This background, as we now know, is incorrect and only served to fuel (or potentially begin) the famed police scanner myth. Regardless, Bloom decided to print a story about this in the May issue of High Times that year (1991) and started using the term, blasting it to a global audience.

Soon, this association of 420 with marijuana use was no longer just a codeword for smoking marijuana behind the school, tied to fond memories of a great cannabis hunt, nor was it only a way to discuss weed openly at Grateful Dead concerts. 420 was officially common knowledge.

Whether hand rolled or pre-rolled, joints are a classic way to partake in 420 festivities.

The Waldos could not have known it, but they created a codeword that has truly permeated cannabis culture. Today, marijuana is celebrated around the world on the twentieth of April. In fact, the code is so ingrained in the public consciousness that when California legalized the use of medicinal cannabis in 2003, they called the bill SB 420.

To celebrate SB 420 among many other milestones reached, April has come to be dubbed Cannabis Awareness Month. This month, there are cannabis consumers, growers, sellers, and advocates of all kinds coming together to celebrate the progress our country has made toward cannabis awareness.

Shedding light on the need for marijuana decriminalization and legalization, and proper education, these observances help push the cause further to help stop the spread of misinformation. 

It’s great to look back on anti-marijuana propaganda like Reefer Madness and laugh at the campy propaganda piece rather than fear that other viewers are taking it seriously. But films like those contributed a significant amount of damage to American cannabis culture, leading to the “war on drugs” (something increasingly referred to as “the drugless war”). 

The DEA still lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the category for drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” alongside far more dangerous and addictive drugs like LSD, ecstasy, and heroin. This is why there are 40,000 people currently behind bars for weed-related crimes. 

And, due to racial biases, a disproportionate number of Americans incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses are made up of people of color, despite minority groups having equal usage rates to white Americans. It’s been found that a black person in the United States is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. 

The next time someone asks you why cannabis users associate 4/20 with weed, you can dispel some myths perpetuated through the spread of misinformation and paint a fuller, more accurate picture of cannabis culture.

Honorary 420 Myth Mentions

Thanks to medical marijuana programs, cannabis consumers no longer have to hide their preference for the alternative medicine.

It’s important to learn and spread awareness of the shocking statistics and the picture they paint of willful ignorance, racist policing, and medical access restriction, but constantly thinking of the persisting fight against legalization can be rather discouraging. 

That’s why, in celebration of Cannabis Awareness Month, we’re going to pretend for a moment that we don’t know the story of the Waldos, the Grateful Dead and 420 to dive into some of the more interesting myths. While the “420” being the code used by officers to signal “marijuana smoking in progress” is the most pervasive, here are a few honorary mentions for strange stories that have spawned throughout the years to explain the meaning of 420.

1. The California Penal Code

A theory nearly as popular as the police dispatch story claims that 420 is the criminal code in California for marijuana-related offenses, but this isn’t the case at all. In reality, the 420 code in California isn’t even related to marijuana consumption – it’s to indicate people obstructing entry to public land.

2. The Number of Compounds in Marijuana

Another pervasive myth is that 420 refers to the number of compounds found in marijuana. There are actually around 500 compounds that can be found in marijuana, depending upon the strain and chemical makeup. Given that 500 is not that far off from 420 and the tendency of active ingredient lists to fluctuate, it’s easy to see how a rumor like this could have originated and why it would be widely believed.

3. Bob Dylan’s Song “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”

One popular theory about the origin of 420 is that the song “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” by Bob Dylan was about cannabis. Seeing as Dylan and his musician friends smoked openly in the 60s, fans noticed that multiplying the numbers in the title (12 and 35) produces the number 420. 

The theory spread, so much so that the artist himself debunked the theory. While playing the Royal Albert Hall in 1966, Dylan claimed: “I never have and never will write a ‘drug song,’” even going so far as to claim that he didn’t know how to. The band who performed on the track offered some helpful context as to how this story may have gained traction, revealing that everyone recorded while high on marijuana for inspiration.

4. Death Anniversary of a Famous Musician

Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and many others have been the center of rumors that 420 was created in memoriam of their death. Although 4:20 does happen to be the exact time that Albert Hofman, famous LSD scientist, dropped acid for the first time, and 4/20, unfortunately, is Adolf Hitler’s birthday—though in his case, stoners supposedly consumed marijuana to show disrespect to the figure as he reportedly disapproved of cannabis consumption—none of these famously pro-cannabis musicians died on the date or at the time.

Stranger Than Fiction

A Hand Holding Up a Green and Orange Cannabis Nug With a Pink Cherry Blossom Tree Behind

Any of these answers would have been an interesting explanation for why cannabis users light up for one big global smoke sesh on the 20th of April every year. However, the real history of 420 is far more fitting for the joking way most marijuana users say “blaze it” when they notice the clock hit 420.

Marijuana is a substance intended for those 18+ even in states where it is legalized. Even so, one of the most popular terms (used not only in cannabis culture, but also in the mainstream) was coined by a group of high school kids simply reminding one another of the time they’d meet after class to go search for a hidden patch of weed along the coast. 

There is nostalgia and humor to be found in the fact that entertainment like The Breakfast Club or That 70’s Show weren’t too far off from being honest, yet comedic, depictions of teenage life at the time. 

Times are certainly changing, especially for the fast-paced industry and evolving world of cannabis. But it’s always great to take a walk down memory lane to remember where we came from.

Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Contributor for Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.

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