4/20: A History

Is it a police code? Was it chosen for Hitler’s birthday? Does it refer to the number of active chemicals in marijuana? Or is the origin of 420 explained by one of the other many urban legends?

These legends are as varied as the plant they are based on. Growing up, I heard several versions—specifically the police code and Hitler’s birthday—but never thought much about the story behind the phrase. Later in life, I heard about a loose connection to the Grateful Dead. This year, in honor of April 20, I finally decided to see what the great and powerful Google would find about history of this cultural phenomenon.

Picture by Thomas Hawk https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/6927174423

Picture by Thomas Hawk

According to a set of interviews the Huffington Post conducted in 2010 with a number of the people involved, the term originates in San Rafael, California, with five teens who called themselves “the Waldos.” These teens ended up coining it in the fall of 1971, when they heard a rumor that there was a coast guard member who would no longer be able to tend his plot of marijuana plants near Point Reyes Station and decided to try their luck at finding this mythical free pot. The Waldos would meet at a statue of Louis Pasteur outside their school at 4:20 p.m. to go hunting for the plot of pot, one and one of the members told HuffPo they would remind each other in the halls with the phrase “4:20 Louis.” Eventually they would drop the second part, officially creating “420.”

The statue of Louis Pasteur where the Waldos met at 4:20

The Louis Pasteur statue (photo by Cameron and Mary Maddux)

They teens met for weeks to look for the mythical patch but never found it. They had, however, found a new code word. They used it to invite each other out to smoke, ask if someone was high, or see if someone had any pot, able to fly under the radar of watchful teachers and parents. But how did 420 move from five teens in California to the rest of the world?

It all circles back to the Grateful Dead. In the early ’70s, San Francisco’s hippie culture had to move—their neighborhood, the Haight, was becoming a home to con artists and thugs. The Grateful Dead were among those displaced and ended up in the Marin Hills, which happened to be just a few blocks from the Waldos’ school. Combine the location with two members of the Waldos’ families having ties to the counterculture band and you get the perfect storm for the Dead to hear the term. In fact, the Waldos had open access to the band’s parties and rehearsals, and one of the teens even did a summer tour with one of the side bands (which featured the Dead’s Phil Lesh) as a roadie. While no one truly remembers the first time they heard the phrase, no one is surprised that it was the Waldos.

A van painted with a tribute to the Grateful Dead

Tribute to the Grateful Dead (photo by Ard van der Leeuw)

The Grateful Dead and their side bands toured during the ’70s and ’80s, playing all over the globe, and the term spread underground until High Times reporter Steve Bloom ran into the phrase in 1990 at a Dead concert. High Times then started using the term, moving it outside of the Dead’s fans. In 1997, the Waldos contacted the magazine to set the record straight.

Since then, 420 has exploded. It comes up in movies, TV shows, and elsewhere in pop culture—it was even used as the designation for California Senate Bill 420, which established the state’s program for medicinal marijuana use. The term is so popular that the Colorado Department of Transportation had to remove the mile 420 marker on Interstate 70 because of how often it was being stolen; they replaced it with mile 419.9.

Colorado’s replacement for mile marker 420

Colorado’s replacement for mile marker 420 (photo by Bill Keaggy)

4/20, of course, is also an unofficial counterculture national holiday. People take the 20th of April to gather, celebrate, and consume cannabis in their favored manner. Some events are political, advocating legalization, and others are just for fun; some are held in parks, campuses, and even political buildings. While 4/20’s roots lie in just five teens out to find a patch of bud, the term has grown to levels no one could have foreseen.

People gathering in Boulder, Colorado, on April 20

4/20 on Norlin Quad in Boulder, Colorado (photo by Zach Dischner)

I’ll just close with a friendly reminder: if you plan to celebrate today, please do it responsibly! Here are a few of the events going on in Minnesota:


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