A Simple Explanation of How 420 Became Code for Marijuana


If you know anything about marijuana culture, you probably know "420" is special for pot smokers. Whether it's used to refer to the substance itself, a descriptor for almost anything pot-related or just an excuse to light up at a certain time, 420 has long been a central part of pot culture. But what does 420 mean?

The idea of 420 is the kind of thing that's just sort of existed without any real explanation. When you ask most people why 420 is important in marijuana culture, they'll have either a half-baked explanation, or none at all. Some of the more popular explanations have included: the birth (or death) of Bob Marley, a Grateful Dead connection, Hitler's birthday, the chemical make-up of cannabis, police code for a marijuana arrest, a Bob Dylan reference or tea time in Holland. Unfortunately all of these are either totally wrong or misinformed. 

So what's the real story behind 420? Although it's nearly impossible to confirm, most agree that the number first attached itself to marijuana at a California high school around 1971. According to one story, a group of five teenagers at San Rafael High School who called themselves "the Waldos," (because they always hung out by a wall) found a hand-drawn map that supposedly led to a massive marijuana crop at Point Reyes, northwest of San Francisco. The Waldos agreed to meet by their school's statue of Louis Pasteur around 4:20 p.m. and try to find the crop (the phrase was originally 420-Louis, in reference to the statue, but the second part was eventually dropped). The five Waldos never had any luck with the map or the crop, but every adventure started with a smoke session before heading out.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

"We were smoking a lot of weed at the time," said Dave Reddix, or Waldo Dave, now a 59-year-old filmmaker. "Half the fun was just going looking for it." They never found the marijuana crop, but the ritual of meeting at 4:20 p.m. and getting high stuck and quickly spread around to their friends and others in the pot smoking community. Eventually the term made its way to the circles of Grateful Dead fans, or Deadheads, and the number stuck. Years later, publications like High Times picked up on the trend and the lore grew.

A few years ago, a rival group claimed invention of the 420 ritual in the 1970s, but on April 20, 2013, Waldo Dave penned a long explanation of his group and the terms origin in the Huffington Post that's hard to dismiss. Of course, it's totally possible this was all fake too, but when something like this becomes so big and there are so many origin stories that are so clearly wrong, the pieces start to fall into place and things just start to make sense. 

Image Credit: AP

In marijuana culture, 420 has taken on a life of its own. Whether that means lighting up at 4:20 p.m. (or a.m. if you're still awake) or celebrating all-out on April 20, using the number to describe your business' intent, or a calling card to discreetly confirm an interest in marijuana in public (not unlike the growing community over at r/trees), 420 culture is arguably one of the driving forces behind the ever-growing marijuana-friendly movement in the U.S. and around the world.