Considering its global popularity, and nearly universally understood status achieved in the years since legalization, it’s notable that so few of those who celebrate it can explain, with any certainty, the origins of the 420 cannabis holiday. There’s no shortage of myths and legends of course. But it takes some active research to get to the real history of the number 420 as code for cannabis consumption. This may not last. Last year, even CNN was covering the holiday’s story. And unlike a decade ago, when there was little consensus on the origin legend, it’s now quite easy to discover people talking about this moment in cannabis history with a simple Google search.
Most smokers are happy to have the annual (and daily) prompting to indulge, and to commune with other cannabis enthusiasts – so it’s possible that the true origins of the day may never really rise to the forefront of public consciousness on the holiday. And that’s okay. The sense of mystery is surely part of the charm.
If you prefer that the holiday retain its smoky haze of mystery, stoner culture has generated a wide range of myths and legends over the decades that you may still choose to offer to friends who inquire.
One common origin story you may still hear is that 420 was police code for the use or distribution of cannabis, in places like LA or New York City, or part of the California penal code for cannabis charges themselves. However, neither of these ideas are backed up by the research.
A little more difficult to disprove, and much more intriguing, is the legend surrounding Bob Dylan’s "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," famous for its refrain, “Everybody must get stoned.” Interestingly enough, 12 multiplied by 35 is 420. Dylan has never confirmed the link, although he is famous for his tendency to sit back and let his music speak for itself. And it would represent quite a striking coincidence. In any case, the song is important to cannabis culture, for its explicit allusion to cannabis use, in the mid-60s, long before it became even remotely socially acceptable.
Some might tell you that 4:20 PM is teatime in Holland, and others will say that there are 420 active chemicals in cannabis – which is not terribly far off, though the actual number is more than 500.
With all the mystery and an explosion of mainstream interest in cannabis, and cannabis related festivities, along with the rise of the internet, have allowed intrepid researchers to track down the story with a higher degree of certainty and verification than past generations of truth seekers. On April 20th, 2011, the Huffington Post published an enlightening article, and the accepted truth has gradually been coalescing around its story ever since. While the article was not the first time the story had been told, or showed up in the media, the internet has allowed curious stoners to reach the truth more efficiently.
As one could have probably guessed, it involves the Grateful Dead, the California coast, and the blossoming stoner culture of the early 70s. The story also bears a very satisfying resemblance to a teenage stoner version of the Goonies – a treasure hunting story set on a rugged stretch of the Marin county coast.
In San Rafael, in 1971, a group of cannabis-loving high school students, who went by the name “the Waldos” after their favorite spot by a wall near the school, began the now global 420 tradition. During the autumn of that year, in the midst of harvest time for cannabis, the crew got word that a local Coast Guard member had been forced to abandon his plot of cannabis plants near the Coast Guard station in Point Reyes National Seashore. They hoped to find the abandoned plants, and enjoy some free cannabis, in an era when it was a bit tougher to come by. They began meeting at 4:20 PM each day near a statue of Louis Pasteur at the high school.
One of the Waldos, who wished to remain anonymous in the less cannabis friendly culture of 2011, told the Huffington Post:
“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis.”
“We’d meet at 4:20 and get in my old ‘66 Chevy Impala and, of course, we’d smoke instantly and smoke all the way out to Point Reyes and smoke the entire time we were out there. We did it week after week. We never actually found the patch.”
However, the adventures did generate a terminology and tradition that would ultimately have a worldwide impact which none of them could have imagined.
As the San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury based hippie culture of the 60s declined, the Grateful Dead moved to San Rafael, setting up a rehearsal hall in town. One of the Waldo’s older brothers was friends with the Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh. The Waldos themselves spent time at the rehearsal hall, and at Grateful Dead parties around San Rafael. Lesh has confirmed that he was friends with the sibling, but could not confirm when he first heard the term 420, noting that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if it could be traced back to the Waldos. Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that the term and the tradition spread with the Dead as they toured throughout the next two decades, and by the 90s, had reached the pages of High Times magazine, which helped to take the concept truly global.
In the late 90s, the Waldos reached out to High Times, which had been referencing the police code story in its explanation of the 420 term. They made their case to High Times, which accepted the evidence, and eventually flew one of the Waldos to the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.
According to Huffington Post, the Waldos, who were contacted for their story, have provided proof in the form of a 420 flag and letters postmarked in the early 70s that make reference to the tradition.
The stoner tradition has since achieved a remarkable degree of cultural currency. California’s 2003 medical cannabis bill was called SB420. Those in search of cannabis-friendly roommates will often advertise for “420 friendly” individuals. And the pop culture references are endless.
This year will mark the first 420 holiday during which Californians can enjoy the fruits of their legalization efforts. And unknown to many, a group of Californians are to thank for the holiday itself as well. While there’s no need for extra incentive to celebrate 420 this year, it’s certainly there if you want to find it.