420 – Origins, Spread, and Significance Explained

The significance of 420 in cannabis culture is long and storied. As one of the most commonly celebrated and recognized cannabis events in North America, 420 or 4/20 has almost garnered household recognition across Canada.

Today, the slang has transcended its status from simply being a day of the year or time of the day to consume cannabis, appearing on countless cannabis accessories, clothing and other memorabilia.

While the term is nearly ubiquitous, its origins and meaning in the broader cannabis community remain relatively unknown. Aside from being a rallying cry to consume cannabis, many are unaware of its history in the cannabis space or its cultural significance. Today, we’ll be diving into the origins of 420, how the term came to be.

What is 420?

The term 420 is used as a time, date and slang for a variety of cannabis-related events and objects. 4/20, or April 20, is also the unofficial holiday for cannabis and cannabis consumption.

Before marijuana legalization, April 20th was also the date for many different protest events held across Canada to push the federal government to legalize cannabis. You might also see the phrase “420-friendly” being used socially to denote how receptive they are to cannabis and its use.

Today, the 420 term is far less incendiary. From cannabis industry experts and users to non-smokers alike, the term has changed to relate to cannabis culture the community as a whole. In recent years, 420 is even used by the marijuana industry to engage and interact with the community.

How Did 420 Start?

As with any culturally significant icons, the exact origins of 420 are difficult to pinpoint. The origin of the four-twenty phrase has been attributed to many things over to years – a police code word used to discreetly mark and signal the presence of cannabis, the number of chemicals a cannabis plant has and even as the preferred time for those living in Amsterdam, the cannabis capital of the Netherlands, to drink tea.

While these are all plausible, albeit somewhat outlandish, explanations for the term’s true origins, none are correct. Contrary to popular belief, the genesis for the term is traced back to a group of students attending San Rafael High School in Marin County, California, in the early 1970s.

Riding the coattails of the Summer of Love, Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich, a group of high school students who called themselves “the Waldos, “is credited with coming up with and popularizing the use of 420.

According to their own website, the Waldos first used 420 in the fall of 1971 when one member came upon a hand-drawn map to a hidden patch of cannabis plants on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The map was given to the group of cannabis aficionados through a friend whose brother was in the U.S Coast Guard and was growing cannabis.

Paranoid that he would get caught, he ceded knowledge of the patch’s location to the group of five friends and permitted them to harvest. The group agreed to meet after school at 4:20 PM in front of the campus statue of Louis Pasteur on the San Rafael High School campus to find the abandoned cannabis crop.

The small group of five students would keep the 4:20 PM meeting place and time consistent across all of their attempts to locate the hidden patch and remind each other to do so. The Waldos referred to the plan as 4:20 Louis, in reference to the Louis Pasteur statue on campus.

“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 Pt. Reyes and smoke the entire time we were out there. We did it week after week,” says Steve Capper of the Waldos. “We never actually found the patch,” he said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

While the term began as a meeting time for the group, it developed into a ritual for the five friends to smoke weed together while looking for the hidden cannabis crop.

After several failed attempts to locate the hidden patch, the group eventually shortened the agreement to meet at 4:20 PM after school to simply ‘420.’ Eventually, the number ultimately evolved into a discreet slang used exclusively by the group.

The Spread of 420

“I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic. He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it,” Steve says. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Around the same time, the Grateful Dead, an American Rock Band that rose to popularity in the late 1960s, settled their headquarters just a short distance away from the high school of the Waldos.

Many family members of the Waldos were close with the band, with one father managing their real estate, a cousin operating a sideband, and another brother who was friends with Phil Lesh, bassist for the ‘Dead.’ Thanks to this familial connection, the Waldos had many opportunities to spend time with the band.

“There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases,” Steve says. “When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.”

As the Grateful Dead toured the globe, the 420 ritual spread through the band’s community of fans or the “Dead underground.” As more and more marijuana enthusiasts and pot smokers used the term, its popularity continued the spread. Eventually, the term became mainstream, and the rest was history.

Four Twenty and Beyond

With humble beginnings as a codeword used by a group of close high school friends, 420 has grown to encompass so much more. April 20 has become an internationally recognized counterculture event advocating for medical marijuana use and legal marijuana across many locations, including Colorado, San Francisco and Vancouver.

In addition to being a day of revel for marijuana advocates and users, the term has also helped destigmatize cannabis and steer it away from being recognized as a “hard drug.” Marijuana smokers and users everywhere have the Waldos to thank for their incredible contribution to the cannabis world and their work in normalizing cannabis.

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