You don’t have to be a marijuana aficionado to be familiar with the term 420, synonymous today with smoking cannabis. But where does the phrase originate from and how did the 20th of April become a worldwide holiday for marijuana smokers?
There are a few misconceptions about the humble origins of 420, some people say that it is police code for catching people with weed, some reference Bob Dylan’s song ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ (12*35=420), and some great conspiracy theorists even go as far as drawing links with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, whose birthday fell on 4/20.
However, the true beginnings of 420 are much simpler and come from a heartwarming tale of friendship. In 1971 the term was first coined in San Rafael, California, by five high school students - Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich. The five students were close friends and formed a band called the Waldos. There was a rumour in San Rafael that somewhere in the town there was an abandoned government crop of cannabis, the Waldos were so set on finding this crop that they even had a treasure map.
Finding the abandoned cannabis became a regular after school activity, but before doing so the group would meet up to get smoke up. By the time school and extracurricular activities were over, the chosen time to meet was 4:20pm by the Louis Pasteur statue. The slang phrase was originally ‘Louis 4:20’ but was later abbreviated to just 4:20.
The term quickly spread amongst the band scene in California where the Waldos often hung out. In 1990 Reddix got a job as a roadie for Grateful Dead and the term soon caught on amongst the Deadhead circle. There is an urban legend that in the late 90s Deadheads handed out flyers inviting everyone to smoke weed on 20 April (4/20 in American stylised dates) at 4:20pm, Steve Bloom - a reporter for High Times magazine - printed the flyer in an issue of the magazine and soon the term become international code for smoking marijuana.
420 has become iconic amongst cannabis culture and has made its mark in history in cult classics like Pulp Fiction and Lost in Translation, where the clocks are set to 4:20pm.
Today 420 is celebrated around the world as a counterculture gathering among the cannabis community to meet up on 20 April and collectively smoke weed at 4:20pm. Gatherings can bring several thousands of people together, meaning that even in places where smoking marijuana is not legal, this is a movement which is too big to be controlled by the authorities. Owing to this sometimes this day is used as a form of public protest to change the laws on cannabis.