Much of cannabis’s history remains a mystery shrouded in smoke and theories. But as it gains mainstream credibility, uncovering the origin stories behind the urban legends has sparked interest among those new to the cannabis culture.
Perhaps the most pervasive and elusive is the real meaning of “420.” The secret shorthand for lighting up has steadily slipped into everyday conversation, with dating apps and roommate ads often using “420-friendly” to denote those who aren’t fans of pot prohibition. Even before it was legit, and in places where public consumption remains limited, mass gatherings on April 20 at 4:20 p.m. marked a day of defiance and demand for legalization.
However, the exact story behind the slang depends on whom you ask.
Coincidence or cleverness?
Claims that 420 references California’s criminal code don’t pan out. (Though the state senate bill that largely legalized use was, cheekily, SB420. No one in the legislature ever owned up to how that happened, but it’s probably not a coincidence.) Yes, police in San Francisco do use code “420” to report a “juvenile disturbance.” That probably is a coincidence, but geographically closer to the truth. Then there’s the Bob Dylan song, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, a cryptic title with the unambiguous chorus, “Everybody must get stoned”. Multiply those two numbers and you get 420. Also a fluke, though Dylan did tour extensively with the Grateful Dead.
Here’s where all of these stories sort of converge: The tale of 420 does lead to California—suburban San Francisco, in fact. And decades of Deadheads traveling the world did spread the phrase far and wide. But behind the familiar folklore are five kids from San Rafael High School who called themselves the Waldos.
Started by teens, of course
In 1971, the group of students, whose nickname was a nod to the wall where they’d gather every day outside to smoke, learned there was an abandoned grove of cannabis growing in the forests of nearby Point Reyes. The five set out to find it.
All were also athletes, so they agreed to meet after practice at 4:20pm, then drive to the coast to find the lost treasure. Despite weeks of wandering in the woods, they never did find that fabled plot of pot. But they discovered during their quest that using the number 420 as a secret code amongst themselves became a practical public signal for, “Hey, you wanna go smoke?”
Like all secrets too good to keep, it eventually got out. By the ’70s, the hippie movement had mostly moved away from the bay to Marin County, where the Waldos lived, becoming a winter home for followers of the Grateful Dead. They too adopted the term, and from there, the word spread. High Times magazine finally caught a whiff of it in 1991, sharing the meaning with its readers, despite a somewhat mistaken version of its origin. From there, it became a global phenomenon.
“Now 4/20 is a day of celebration in states and countries where cannabis sales are legal, bringing recreation and relief to millions,” says Peter Horvath, CEO of Green Growth Brands. “But it’s also a retail holiday. Sales of cannabis products last year on April 20 alone topped $80 million in the U.S.” That’s more than the total sale of avocados on Cinco de Mayo, or chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday. “And market demand is only going to grow.”