Although we have all heard of a theory or two on how the term “420” came to be, the truth always seems shrouded in mystery. Is it from the number of chemicals found in a joint or police code for a local light-up? Unfortunately, neither of these theories are based on real facts, nor does the number have anything to do with Hitler’s birthday or the death of any pro-cannabis celebrity. To uncover the true origins of 420, we must go all the way back to the 1970s.
According to a Huffington Post interview with the guys who reportedly coined the term, 4:20 was the time they would get together to smoke and search for a secret plot of herb grown by a Coast Guard service member near the Point Reyes Peninsula station. These individuals, who call themselves the “Waldos”, would meet by a statue of Louis Pasteur on their San Rafael school grounds after their sports practice to go looking for the secret patch. As they passed each other in the halls during the day, they would whisper, “4:20-Louis” to remind each other of the meetup that day. Eventually they dropped the Louis part, and 420 evolved into a myriad of meanings. The term 420 became their code word for asking, “Are you high right now?”, “Do you have any on you?”, or “Do you want to go smoke?”. They never did find the patch, but the term 420 stuck around for decades to come.
So how did this term progress through a small group of high school kids into being widely recognized throughout the country? For that we can thank the Grateful Dead. The Waldos had several connections to the band, other than their geographical proximity to their headquarters. One of the Waldos was a roadie for the band while his brother managed sidebands for the bassist, Phil Lesh. The term 420 started spreading through the band community, creating a subculture identity with the secret code. Once High Times picked up on the term, they started incorporating it into their marketing and helped it go international.
Today, 420 is still used for numerous references to cannabis culture and can even be found in mainstream media in various forms. For instance, some of the clocks featured in Pulp Fiction are set to 4:20. Not only do avid smoke enthusiasts refer to their herb in 420 code, but the number has become significant to the culture as well. April 20th, 4/20, is known within the cannabis community as the day everyone gets together to enjoy their herb. In some recreational states, such as Colorado, there are even festivals commemorating the “holiday”. Besides April 20th, smokers still reference 4:20 as their own “it’s five-o-clock somewhere” slogan throughout the year.
With all of the legends surrounding 420, can we really trust that it originated from a few high school students in the 1970s? Apparently, yes. Some of the original group have produced dated notes with the term, affirming the earliest uses of it. No one has come forward with alternate evidence or even a dispute to these claims, so for now the origin story can rest with the Waldos, the Grateful Dead, and the High Times all playing their parts for what 420 means to us today.