The Origin of 420
420 (pronounced four-twenty), is a sacred term to those who deem themselves part of the cannabis community, and a term that is used the world over to celebrate and associate with all things cannabis. Whether you are sparking up your joint, baking a bit of MJ into your brownies, buying the latest stoner fashion, advocating reform, or tending to the crops in your garden, you are part of the 420 – the cannabis culture.
The term 420 is not just an overarching term to describe all things cannabis. No, it is much, much more than that. It has become akin to a spiritual being or deity to many stoners the world over. A deity that is celebrated on this most sacramental day, the 20th of April, or 4/20. A day where stoners come together and rejoice, get high and commemorate all that is great and good about the cannabis community and the joy, peace and love it brings.
But why 420? Where does it come from? Well, there are a lot of myths, so before we get into the real origin, let’s have a look at a few a few of them first.
“420 commemorates the death of Bob Marley”
No, Bob Marley died on 5/11/81. Nor was 4/20 his birthday. 420 does not commemorate any date relating to any musicians involved in the cannabis subculture.
“April 20th is the best time to plant weed”
Nope. This varies region to region and is completely dependent on where you live in the world.
“There are 420 chemical compounds within cannabis”
Wrong again. There are thought to be in excess of 500.
“420 refers to a police code or statute in law refereeing to cannabis”
Wrong on the police front. 420 is normally the code for homicide. Although, in 2003 the California State Senate did pass the California Senate Bill 420, which established guidelines for medical marijuana use. However, this was well after the term 420 was coined, and was a nod to the 420 culture, not its creation.
“The Grateful Dead are responsible”
Yes and no. They were largely responsible for its spread, as we shall discuss later, but they didn’t come up with it.
The Origin of 420
The real origin of 420 dates all the way back to the 1970’s, where it became the hour to meet up and get high for a group of high school students in San Rafael. The group of stoners in question called themselves “The Waldos”, their name, according to them, referring to their habit of often hanging out by a particular wall to light up.
The actual origins of 420 came about when the Waldos got wind of a rumour that a local Coast Guard service member had been growing a crop of marijuana out in the wilds near the coast guard station, but could no longer look after the patch. Taking map in hand, the group decided to go hunting for it themselves, as it was bound to be a treasure trove of free weed. They decided to meet up after school at 4:20 pm by the statue of the famous 19th Century scientist Louis Pasteur, where they would instantly light up a joint and set out to find the “secret garden”.
For weeks the group searched, always meeting at 4:20 by the statue; but they never had any success. Eventually, they gave up on the hunt for this mystical stoners’ Garden of Eden, but one thing stuck with the group, and that was 420 by the statue of Louis. It became a code for the group to reference all things marijuana related. During school hours, as they passed each other in the hallways, they would glance at each other and knowingly mumble “420 Louis”. One of the Waldos told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000, "It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like, 'Do you have any?' or 'Do I look stoned?' ”It was later shortened to just 420, and was used to talk about marijuana in front of teachers and parents with them being none the wiser.
The growth of 420: from high school to global phenomenon
So how did 420 spread? Well, this is where we go back to the Grateful Dead, who just happened to move San Rafael whilst the Waldos were in high school. What’s more, the father of Mark Gravitch, one of the Waldos, managed property for the band; and Dave Reddix, another member of the Waldos, had an older brother who managed a Dead side band, and was good friends with the bassist Phil Lesh.
This gave the Waldos pretty much free access to all of the Grateful Dead’s rehearsals, parties and performances. Dave describes how the Dead "had this rehearsal hall on Front Street, San Rafael, California, and they used to practice there. So we used to go hang out and listen to them play music and get high while they're practicing for gigs. But I think it's possible my brother Patrick might have spread it through Phil Lesh. And me, too, because I was hanging out with Lesh and his band [as a roadie] when they were doing a summer tour my brother was managing."
Whenever the Waldos were back stage, chilling with the band or at their parties, they would of course use the phrase to reference marijuana. "We'd go with [Mark's] dad, who was a hip dad from the '60s. There was a place called Winterland, and we'd always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we're using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, 'Hey, 420.' So it started spreading through that community."
The term became common place as it spread throughout the backstage musical/stoner community, and it wasn’t long before it was bound to go further. Steve Hager, the at the time editor of “High Times” got wind of the term and started using it in everything, building big events around it, such as the Cannabis Cup. Within years it had spread throughout the US, and from there the world – where its legend lives on to this day.
The Waldos have proof of their coining the term before the Grateful Dead spread it. Stashed away in a bank vault belonging to some of the Waldos are newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. They gave some people from the Huffington Post a tour, showing them some of the clippings. One clipping in particular that is of interest is from the San Rafael High School newspaper, in which a student claimed all he wanted to say to the graduating class was “4-20”.
It is a wonderful story of how a group of teenage stoners shaped an international subculture that has grown and flourished. The Waldos themselves are not particular famous, and now lead normal lives. Every now and again they get involved in a documentary or talk to a particular agency interested in the history of 420, but on the whole, they have not moved to profit from their shaping of history.
Whilst admirable, a question lingers still. Why 420? Ok, they met at 4:20, but that is a pretty unusual and specific time. It is thought that they were all part of athletic afterschool clubs, and this was around the time they finished them – so they would all meet after. However not everyone is convinced.
An alternative origin coming from another group of teenagers from the same town claims to refute the Waldos’ account. Known as the Bebes, this group of stoners was on friendly terms with the Waldos, even claiming to have given them their name. “The Bebes and the Waldos are still good friends to this day; however, it's time the truth be told The Waldos were a group of guys I ordained”, claims Brad “Bebe” Benn, leader of the Bebes. He explained how he called them the Waldos because they were uncoordinated and goofy group of un-athletic guys; not because they hung out at a specific wall.
According to the Bebes, the term 420 came about at 4:20 in the afternoon when the group were lighting up a bong. Apparently one of the group glanced at a clock and said “its 4:20, time for bong loads”. Once they were high, they proceeded to take recordings of Bebe, as they did frequently, doing impersonations and various famous voices. He was recorded saying in an Abe Lincoln voice “Four score and 20 years ago...” resulting in the term 420 stuck as their reference for weed, and a codename to use around non-stoners. This spread throughout the school, where it was adopted by the Waldos and then spread further.
The story is certainly not as fun as the Waldos, and has it caused a stir in the community. There are claims that the Waldos have backed up the Bebes story, admitting their fault. Either way, 420 is a historic and important term for the cannabis community, and brings us all closer together.