What is 420? When did it begin? Who started the whole thing? And just what’s so special about the holiday anyway? The history of weed’s biggest day may surprise you.
There are likely as many stories about the origins of the 420 holiday as there are strains of cannabis. The most popular versions usually start somewhere with the Grateful Dead. Still, it makes perfect sense for the history of weed’s biggest day to be as foggy as the minds of the people who created it.
What is 420? The Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead became an integral part of the lore surrounding the 420 holiday is no surprise. The band and their group of hippie followers created a virtual marijuana diaspora from 420 “ground zero.” In the history of the cannabis holiday, the Grateful Dead made some serious contributions. The real origins have nothing to do with the band.
The origins of 420 have to do with a group of California high school students. In the Fall of 1971, a group of students in San Rafael, California hatched a plan. They called themselves the “Waldos,” in honor of the wall outside the high school they had staked as their hangout spot.
The Waldos were in possession of a mysterious treasure map they got from a grower. The map supposedly contained directions to a hidden, abandoned crop of cannabis, and the Waldos were eager to find it.
They decided the Louis Pasteur statue on the grounds of their high school was the ideal meet up spot, and 4:20 pm the ideal time. “4:20 Louis” was the signal to meet up.
And since no cannabis hunting adventure would be complete without first getting stoned, 4:20 also became the designated time for the Waldos to spark up.
They never found the cannabis treasure promised by the map. The Waldos, however, would never have guessed that their inside joke would one day became the international code word for smoking weed.
What is 420? Better Off Dead
In a coincidence of cannabis karma, San Rafael, where the Waldos originally coined “4:20,” connects the Waldos to The Grateful Dead by a strange twist of fate.
San Francisco and Oakland were the epicenters of the hippie movement of the 1960s in California. However, when the party broke up in the 1970s, the Dead and their loyal followers spread out across California and the west coast, taking the cult of 420 with them.
What’s wild is that by the time Deadheads were popularizing the legend of the 420 holiday, the story had already taken on all kinds of twists and turns.
Another High Times reporter, Seven Bloom, dug into the history of 420 after a chance encounter with the phrase. He recalls the first time he stumbled on the phrase. It was at a Grateful Dead concert. One of the Deadheads handed him a flyer with a cryptic message.
“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. Tamalpais.”
The message read almost like the treasure map the Waldos had gotten. A secret message to an unknown destination. Indeed, as fate would have it, Marin County’s hills, the destination in the flyer, are right next door to San Rafael High School, where the Waldos’ “420” tradition began. At that point, the story of weed’s biggest day had come full circle.
What is 420? The Once and Future Code
Bloom had no idea what “420-ing” meant. But when he checked the other side of the flyer, he found a backstory claiming to have all the answers.
According to it, the police invented the code lingo 420 and used it to signal when there was marijuana smoking in progress. “Roger that, we’ve got a 420 over at San Rafael High School,” or something like that.
Taking a jab at the cops, the flyer continued, Deadheads decided to use 420 for themselves whenever they wanted to smoke.
Ironically, the flyer did correctly state that 420 began in San Rafael in the 70s. So somehow, the story of the Waldos had been distorted. But it was too late, 420 had already become an official part of the stoner lexicon. A signal for rallying your buds to smoke some bud.
The Waldos, however, had perfected the use of the signal long before it became popular. “It was almost telepathic,” recalled one of the Waldos who agreed to go on the record with Huffington Post in 2009.
Steve Capper, who was 57 at the time of the interview, says that with just a slight change of inflection or tone, or even with no clue at all, it was possible to tell what a “420?” meant. It could mean, “want to smoke?” “have any weed?” or “are you high right now?” According to Capper, teachers and parents were utterly oblivious to what 420 meant, or even that it had any meaning at all.
What is 420? Not So Secret Anymore
Capper and the other Waldos interviewed for The Huffington Post say it’s still strange to see how wide their secret phrase has reached. Today, 420 is hardly a secret. Virtually everyone knows it has at least something to do with cannabis, even if they don’t know the history.
References to 420 abound in media and popular culture. They have for decades. From clocks in movies and TV shows always set at 4:20, the most famous being “Pulp Fiction,” to a “Price Is Right” contestant always bidding $420. Even the name of California’s 2003 legal medical marijuana law SB 420, the number has definitely made the rounds.
Of course, High Times can be blamed for totally letting the nugs out of the bag when their feature on the history of 420 took the story and the code word global.
Virtually overnight, High Times took a secret known more or less only by the Grateful Dead underground and made it internationally famous. It wasn’t long before everyone involved in cannabis culture embraced 420. Even today, the country’s biggest hemp festivals and cannabis festivals run through the month of April, culminating on 4/20.
The holiday also inspires creative activism and protest. For example, a cannabis activist in London kicked off the 420 season by opening a cannabis pop-up shop in protest of the country’s anti-weed laws.
What is 420? Cult Following
Even today, the Waldos are blown away at the impact they’ve had on cannabis culture. Many of the Waldos keep a treasure trove of high school memorabilia — and precious proof of the truth of their story — safely locked in a San Fransisco bank vault.
For better or worse, none of the Waldos ever made any money off of the phrase they originally created. But there are plans in the works to create a documentary about the history of 420 and the part the Waldos and the Grateful Dead subculture played in making it an internationally recognized sign for cannabis.
They also want to publish a dictionary of the rest of their secret slang, hoping maybe another phrase might take off they can capitalize on.
Final Hit: What is 420?
Today, 420 enjoys massive popularity along with a dedicated following. With legalization spreading across the United States, April cannabis festivals are more numerous and popular than ever. In fact, many of the biggest events have become so large they engulf entire communities. For the Waldos, 420 was a signal for coming together and enjoying cannabis. And it’s exactly that spirit that sustains the 4/20 holiday more than 40 years later.