The History of 420 – How Stoner Slang Created The Highest Holiday

The History of 420 – How Stoner Slang Created The Highest Holiday

Written by Lisa Marie 

420. 

That simple code was used far and wide for years as a secret knock into the club of cannabis culture. But as more U.S. states are allowing legal and recreational usage and the stigma surrounding marijuana is slowly lifting, and people are embracing cannabis consumption more than ever, 420 is becoming just as recognizable as “It’s 5:00 somewhere.”  

As the popularity and visibility of all things 420, from merchandise to annual festivals and gatherings on April 20th continues to rise, people may wonder who actually coined the term we’ve come to associate with cannabis consumption. Read on to separate the facts from fiction and learn the true history of 420.

 

The Meaning of 420- Myths and Misconceptions

As the term “420” began to rise in popularity back in the 90’s, several theories as to its origin story started to circulate. 3 decades later, some of these theories are still kicked around and passed off as truth. 

Some folks believe 420 is a nod to the number of active chemicals in cannabis. Given the fact that recent scientific data puts the actual number under 500, this idea isn’t too far fetched.

Others have tried to connect 420 to Bob Dylan’s anthemic 1960’s hit, “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.” When you pair the most memorable line in the song (“Everybody must get stoned”) with the fact that 12 times 35 equals 420, you’ve got a fairly plausible explanation that seems to add up perfectly.

But perhaps the most widely accepted theory has to do with 420 being a criminal code used by police to bust suspected smokers and plugs. While this idea sounds cool, and definitely captures the outlaw attitude of cannabis connoisseurs, it’s a total myth. A California penal code 420 exists, but it has nothing at all to do with marijuana.

So…if none of those explanations are true, then where and when did 420 actually begin? 


The Waldos- Teenage Trailblazers

Like most slang terms, “420” was created by savvy teenagers as a way to speak freely around adults. Back in 1971, a group of 5 friends from San Raphael High School in California who called themselves The Waldos, heard a story about a piece of land where they could find (and harvest) a few marijuana plants. Armed with an actual map drawn by a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, they set off on daily adventures (“safaris” as they called them) to find their THC treasure. The guys coined the code “420 Louis” in order to share the time (4:20pm) and place (by the statue of Louis Pasteur) to meet, smoke, and hunt for the plants. 

Sadly, their searches came up short, and The Waldos aborted their original mission. But their clandestine code “420 Louis,” later cut down to “420,” lived on, allowing The Waldos to continue their afternoon smoke sessions without tipping off the authorities. 420 earned a spot in San Raphael High School history, as it slipped past the editors and got published in an issue of the school’s newspaper.

Nearly 2 decades after The Waldos had grown up and moved on from their smoke-fueled safaris, the term 420 was reborn. A flyer made by California Grateful Dead fans included a reference to 420, and the term spread throughout the cannabis community. The staying power of 420 is impressive, as it continued to remain relevant without the help of social media which didn’t exist back then.

Although there was a brief mention in a 1991 issue of High Times Magazine, the version of 420 we have come to know did not make its way to the mainstream until the mid 1990’s. After seeing and hearing the term he and his high school friends created back in the day on merch, at concerts, and even on the clocks in the classic flick, Pulp Fiction, original Waldo Steve Capper needed to set the record straight.

In 1998, Capper reached out to Steve Hager, the editor of High Times Magazine at the time, to tell the actual origin story of 420. Although others have tried to lay claim to creating 420, Capper solidified his place as one of the 420 originators by providing Hager with documented proof in the form of handwritten letters and other memorabilia directly connecting 420 to The Waldos. 

After the 1998 article was published in High Times, The Waldos created their own website to share the truth about 420 while paying a proper homage to the bond and enduring friendship from which the term was born. While they never capitalized on the initial merchandising frenzy of 420 back in the day, their website offers officially licensed Waldos watches, clothing, and rolling papers to folks who want to pay tribute to the Founding Fathers whenever they smoke at 4:20.


The Evolution of 420 From Daily Smoke Sesh to Annual High Holiday

It’s no secret that folks have been gathering in public places such as Hippie Hill in San Francisco to smoke and enjoy marijuana since the days of peace and love back in the late 1960’s. But how did a slang term created in California in the 70’s by The Waldos become the catalyst for the 420 festivals and celebrations we see each year on April 20th? We have The Waldos, Grateful Dead, their California fans, and good old fashioned “word of mouth” to thank for that.

2 of the Waldos, Dave and Mark, had connections to the Grateful Dead back in the 70’s. While none of The Waldos claim to be “Deadheads,” they were all fans of the music and vibe of bands like Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage. 

Waldo Dave had an older brother who forged a friendship with the Dead’s bass player, Phil Lesh. Given this connection, Waldo Dave had time to hang and sesh with the band backstage. The term 420 was used as a way to refer to smoking, and eventually made its way into the lingo used and embraced by the Dead and their fans.

Waldo Mark’s father, known as Hy to his friends, was involved in real estate and helped members of the Grateful Dead and their associates to secure space for band rehearsals and to purchase homes in Marin County, hometown of The Waldos. When the Grateful Dead played shows in the area, The Waldos were often invited backstage. Also, when the band members left town to tour, some of The Waldos were enlisted to housesit and tend to the pets left behind. During these times, The Waldos had many moments to share their secret smoking code with their musician friends, who then passed the term 420 along to audiences and other bands across the country.

For nearly 2 decades, 420 continued on, mostly as a stoner secret spoken only at jam band concerts or under the bleachers at high school sporting events. That is, until Steve Bloom from High Times published this handmade flyer made to encourage Dead fans to smoke on “the grand master of all holidays, 4/20…” After that first documented mention of gathering to smoke on April 20th, other annual celebrations began cropping up across the U.S., particularly in states such as California and Colorado where cannabis consumption was more widely accepted by the public.


The Future of 420

In recent years, many cities across the country and all over the globe have hosted festivals and celebrations geared toward Cannabis enthusiasts each year on April 20th. 420 celebrations are reaching new heights and expanding beyond traditional gatherings or concerts. While there are still plenty of old school celebrations like California’s 420 Fest at Hippie Hill hosted by Erykah Badu, and the long running Mile High 420 Fest in Denver, other markets such as New York and New Jersey are just starting to stake their claim in the lucrative 420 celebration game. 

In addition to the vast opportunities for cannabis brands to increase visibility and generate revenue, 420 festivals are also becoming a platform for organizations to highlight and gather support for cannabis-related issues. Some 420 celebrations are offering help with obtaining medical marijuana cards, as well as providing legal information about expungement. There are even high profile cannabis brands such as Tyson and Terplandia that have partnered with Last Prisoner Project to raise funds during their 420 events. While the focus was, is, and always will be weed, 420 is evolving to reflect the social and political issues that matter to the members of the cannabis community.


Conclusion

50 years after it was created, 420 remains a relevant part of the language and lifestyle of cannabis enthusiasts around the world. What started as a wink and a nod between resourceful 70’s teens is forever emblazoned in the pop culture lexicon. So, next time you celebrate at 4:20 on 4/20, take a moment to pay homage to The Waldos– the creators of the most famous cannabis holiday.




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