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420 The Origins of the Term

A Sign with a Yellow Background and a Black Border. Text in big numbers: 420.

One of the most well-known and persistent terms associated with cannabis is three little numbers: 420. Myths abound in regards to the term’s origins and even the meaning, but 420 persists as a universally accepted signal of the marijuana enthusiast, with references in pop culture and all over cannabis businesses. The term “420” is so ubiquitous that there is even government sanctioned cannabis holidays on April 20th, or the date 4/20. These 420 festivals are some of the most popular cannabis events around the world, from Amsterdam to Denver. Signs bearing the numbers 420 have also been stolen in states with legalized marijuana, leading many to replace them with signs reading “419.99.” Though everybody knows about it, no one is really sure where the marijuana term came from. Let’s look into the origins of the term 420 and its connection with cannabis.

Myths of the Origins of 420

Before we get into the real story of 420, let’s take a quick look at the various explanations why potheads use the numbers 420.

  • 420 is the California police code for “marijuana smoking in process.” – This is probably the most popular myth surrounding the number 420 and weed. It is also the oldest myth, as a flyer at a 1990 Grateful Dead concert cited this supposed police code as the origins of the term. Sadly, it’s simply not true. There is no 420 code in police broadcasts in CA. In California law, the penal code 420 also doesn’t refer to weed at all, just entrances to public lands. Boring, right?
  • 420 commemorates the death of Bob Marley. – This one is pure myth, as the reggae icon and marijuana poster child passed away on 5/11/1981. His birthday isn’t even on April 20th. Another famous figure, Adolf Hitler, was indeed born on 4/20, but the number doesn’t commemorate him either.
  • 4:20 is tea time in Holland, the promised land of weed! – Wrong again. While European “tea time” is in the afternoon between lunch and dinner, people in Holland don’t light up cannabis at exactly twenty minutes past four in the afternoon. Marijuana use also wasn’t legalized in Holland on April 20th, either.
  • Some say The Grateful Dead started “420” as a term, as is evidenced by the fact that they only ever stayed in hotel rooms numbered 420 on tour. – This one is getting closer to the truth. Famous myth debunking site Snopes investigated the origins of 420 and found that the term dated back to a group of teenagers in the early 1970s, and then to the Grateful Dead. There’s no way they could’ve only stayed in Room 420 on tour, though.

The Real Story of 4:20, a Long Strange Trip

420 as a pot code word began way back in the early 1970s with a group of high school kids in San Rafael, California. There was a group of friends who loved smoking marijuana, and they used to hang out on a certain wall, which led to them calling themselves the Waldos. The Waldos were such avid potheads that they would meet at different secret spots around the school to smoke weed, but they always met at the same time: you guessed it, 4:20 pm. For the first meetup, they agreed to meet at 4:20 pm to look for a marijuana patch planted nearby, but it soon became just a code word for smoking. To let each other know where to meet without cluing in their square teachers, they’d say things like, “4:20 Louis,” meaning a statue of Louis Pasteur outside the school. News outlet Huffington Post tracked down some of the old Waldos to check on their story, and they do have proof in the form of old letters referencing 420 and a flag from the early 1970s with the numbers 420 on it.

The way that a code word among a group of high school students in the 70s became a cultural stoner icon is another story. Just like the myth, it starts with the Grateful Dead. The band moved into Marin County, California, just blocks from the San Rafael high school where it all began. The Waldos began hanging out with the Dead and their circle of stoner friends. Though they don’t remember exactly (wonder why), they must have used the code word 420 when around the band. The term spread among that community of musicians, artists, and potheads. Then, during that fateful 1990 Grateful Dead concert, a reporter with famous marijuana magazine High Times got a flyer using 420 to advertise a pot smoking meetup. When the term was used in High Times, it spread from there, and now we have an international day of marijuana celebration on April 20th.

About 4/20 Celebrations Around the World

April 20th is now an official holiday for cannabis enthusiasts, and there are many different ways of celebrating it. Many people will simply get together in a private gathering to pass around a joint or bong at 4:20 in the afternoon, or maybe make a big feast with edibles and party all day. Others attend big festivals scheduled for that day. Notable festivals and 420 observances include a gathering at Hippie Hill in San Francisco California, a huge outdoor festival in Boulder, Colorado, a smoking circle outside the Alberta Legislature Building in Canada, and even smoking gatherings as far away as Hyde Park in London, United Kingdom. The Denver 420 Fest is a new event that showcases marijuana and related cannabis products. The two-day festival features bands, glass artists, cannabis edible chefs, cannabis product manufacturers, and other events that celebrate cannabis culture. Many of these 420 festivals and events are places for professionals in the growing legal marijuana industry to meet and discuss new technologies and products, as well as decide on policies to further cannabis legalization.

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