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A Journal of Cannabis and Culture

What is 4/20?

What is 4/20?

BY SARA COUGHLIN

For cannabis enthusiasts across the country, it’s become a widely accepted fact that April 20 is the day that you celebrate weed, preferably somewhere scenic, with your friends, and ideally with copious amounts of the stuff. But, how did 420, the number andthe associated date, come to be an integral part of cannabis culture?

Peter Hecht, author of Weed Land: Inside America's Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit, explains that myths about the number abound, with varying levels of truth behind them. For example, the fact that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20 seems to come up an awful lot, especially when you consider how little the fascist, genocidal dictator has to do with weed. More relevant to the actual subject is the suggestion that cannabis contains 420 chemical compounds, thus the number’s connection to weed. (However, in reality, it has yet to be confirmed that that’s the exact number of compounds in the plant.)

More than any single origin story, Hecht finds 4/20’s rise to prominence, in and of itself, to be the most fascinating. “It’s the Super Bowl of pot,” he says. “It’s one of the most remarkable social -slash-pop-culture phenomenons that you can conceive of.” Hecht says that 4/20 has always been a day for people to gather at their local parks and smoke (preferably at 4:20 p.m. exactly). But, more recently, he’s more struck by the lengthy lines that stream out of dispensaries in his home state of California on April 20, noting that, if there’s been one major change in the nature of 4/20 celebrations, it’s the commercial opportunity it presents to cannabis retailers as acceptance and legalization expands.

Before we go any farther, a disclaimer: Any retelling of 4/20’s origins will, by nature, be incomplete. The history of this holiday (and its associated number) is hazy, with gaps in time that remain unfilled. But that doesn’t make April 20 any less of a phenomenon—one that, Hecht predicts, will come to be recognized by a wider national and mainstream audience in the not-too-distant future.

Read on to learn about the highest points in 4/20’s history.

1971
Five wisecracking, hippie high schoolers from Marin County, CA, who referred to themselves as “the Waldos", started using “420” as a shorthand term for smoking cannabis and for the plant itself, allowing them to discuss their favorite pastime, and to make future plans to enjoy cannabis, without anyone catching wind of their illicit activities. Legend has it, the Waldos came upon a “treasure map” leading to a free stash of weed and used “420” as the code word for the time (4:20 p.m.) when they’d meet to search for the up-for-grabs cannabis, per SFGATE. Although the fantastical little garden was never found, “420” remained part of the gang’s vocabulary. One of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, worked as a roadie for Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s bassist, and in turn brought the term “420” into the band’s collective imagination.

1990
Steve Bloom, then a reporter for High Timesfound a flyer at a Grateful Dead show that invited people to the Bolinas Ridge in the Bay Area’s Marin County to smoke cannabis at 4:20 p.m. on April 20. The flyer mentioned that the local police code for “Marijuana Smoking in Progress” was 420, which led cannabis users to associate the number with, you guessed it, smoking weed. (This claim seems to have been debunked since then.) The flyer declared April 20 as a day to “Get together with your friends and smoke pot hardcore.”

1991
Bloom’s write-up of the flyer published in High Times, suggesting that the creators of the flyer originated the concept of 420 and, in turn, popularizing 420 as a term among its national readership.

1998
The Waldos reached out to High Times to set the story straight—they came up with “420,” not whoever wrote that flyer. The magazine then published an article declaring the Waldos as the true coiners of the term.

2003
The Medical Marijuana Program Act, also known as California Senate Bill 420, was introduced to the California legislature. It proposed a voluntary medical marijuana ID system as well as specific guidelines around medical marijuana cultivation and how much individuals could have at one time. It remains unknown who gave the bill such a tongue-in-cheek name.

2004
SB420 was passed in California.

2019
Earl Blumenauer, a democratic representative from Oregon, filed congressional bill H.R. 420 which would have cannabis removed from the Controlled Substances Act. “While the bill number may be a bit tongue in cheek, the issue is very serious,” he stated in a press release.

A Journal of Cannabis and Culture
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