You're BrowsingLos Angeles - DTLA
logo
Cart
Menu
EMBER /
Arrow
search
April 13, 2020
What’s the Story Behind 420?

BY SARA COUGHLIN

420 looks a little different this year, now that we’re all social distancing. In the past we’ve celebrated April 20 by sharing cannabis with friends, ideally somewhere in the outdoors where it’s nice and scenic. But regardless of how we’re commemorating this day, you might wonder how did the number and its associated date come to be an integral part of cannabis culture?

There are plenty of myths, with varying levels of truth behind them. One theory claims it refers to tea time in Holland while yet another says it has to do with the Bob Dylan song, “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” (multiply the two and you get 420). And Vox cites a 1939 science fiction story “In the Walls of Eryx” by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, where the narrator comes across some plants that get him high at 4:20 p.m. 

The most compelling theory suggests that cannabis contains 420 chemical compounds — hence its connection to the date. However, in reality, it has yet to be confirmed that that’s the exact number of compounds in the plant. Regardless of what the theory is, April 20th has traditionally been a day for people to gather at their local parks and consume, preferably at 4:20 p.m. exactly. 

Before we go any farther, a disclaimer: Any retelling of 4/20’s origins will, by nature, be incomplete. The history of this holiday (and its associated number) is hazy, with gaps in time that remain unfilled. But that doesn’t make April 20 any less of a phenomenon.

Read on to learn about the highest points in this day’s history.

1971 

Five wisecracking, hippie high schoolers from Marin County, CA, who referred to themselves as “the Waldos", started using “420” as a shorthand term for smoking cannabis and for the plant itself, allowing them to discuss their favorite pastime without anyone catching wind of their illicit activities. Legend has it, the Waldos came upon a “treasure map” leading to a free stash of weed and used “420” as the code word for the time (4:20 p.m.) when they’d meet to search for the up-for-grabs cannabis, per SFGATE. Although the fantastical little garden was never found, “420” remained part of the gang’s vocabulary. One of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, worked as a roadie for Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s bassist, and in turn brought the term “420” into the band’s collective imagination.

1990

Steve Bloom, then a reporter for High Times, found a flyer at a Grateful Dead show that invited people to the Bolinas Ridge in the Bay Area’s Marin County to smoke cannabis at 4:20 p.m. on April 20. The flyer mentioned that the local police code for “Marijuana Smoking in Progress” was 420, which led cannabis users to associate the number with, you guessed it, smoking weed. (This claim seems to have been debunked since then.) The flyer declared April 20 as a day to “Get together with your friends and smoke pot hardcore.”

1991 

Bloom’s write-up of the flyer published in High Times, suggested that the creators of the flyer originated the concept of 420 and, in turn, popularized 420 as a term among its national readership.

1998

The Waldos reached out to High Times to set the story straight—they came up with “420,” not whoever wrote that flyer. The magazine then published an article declaring the Waldos as the true coiners of the term.

2003

The Medical Marijuana Program Act, also known as California Senate Bill 420, was introduced to the California legislature. It proposed a voluntary medical marijuana ID system as well as specific guidelines around cultivation and how much individuals could have at one time. It remains unknown who gave the bill such a tongue-in-cheek name.

2004

SB420 was passed in California.

2019

Earl Blumenauer, a democratic representative from Oregon, filed congressional bill H.R. 420 which would have cannabis removed from the Controlled Substances Act. “While the bill number may be a bit tongue in cheek, the issue is very serious,” he stated in a press release.

So what does April 20, 2020 bring? Consider it a throwback to its happy-go-lucky origin — a relaxing end to your Monday by kicking back with an edible or smoking your favorite pre-roll.

Back to List