The Story Behind 420

Published: 4/6/2024
By: Harry B. Nuggs

The Story Behind 420

420 has become a widely recognized term associated with marijuana and cannabis culture. But where did the term come from and how did it become so popular?

The most common story behind the origins of 420 is that it started with a group of high school students in San Rafael, California in the early 1970s. In particular, a group called the "Waldos" met at 4:20 pm near a statue of chemist Louis Pasteur to smoke marijuana after school.

The Waldos chose 4:20 pm because that was the time they got out of school and it was easier for them all to meet up at that time. Some also suggest the time 4:20 was chosen because it coincided with when the Waldos would light up, which was around the time their parents typically got home from work.

How 420 Became a Code

After deciding to meet regularly at 4:20 pm, the Waldos began using "420" as a code for marijuana and smoking amongst their group. It provided a degree of secrecy and privacy - allowing them to discuss smoking openly without explicitly referencing marijuana or cannabis.

The code "420" and the story behind it was largely confined to the Waldos' friend group for several years. But soon, their friends and acquaintances throughout San Rafael High School also picked up on the reference. In this way, calling something "420" became a shared cultural phenomenon in the community.

Spreading Beyond San Rafael

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the use of "420" as a coded reference began to spread beyond San Rafael. This happened for a few key reasons.

First, some of the Waldos had connections to the Grateful Dead and were part of the broader counterculture movement centered around marijuana use. As they traveled and interacted with these networks, the term naturally began to spread through their communications.

Second, many students from San Rafael High School, including some of the Waldos, ended up at the University of California, Santa Cruz which helped introduce 420 to students from throughout California. From here, exposure accelerated greatly throughout the West Coast and beyond.

Mainstream Attention & Consistent Growth

While 420 slowly gained cultural cachet through the 80s and 90s, most trace its explosion into the mainstream consciousness to efforts in the late 90s and early 2000s. This includes publications like the High Times and major media outlets giving the phenomenon coverage.

Once exposed more broadly, 420 caught on and spread rapidly - both organically and with various events and entities promoting its adoption. Consistent growth occurred to the point where state marijuana legalization frequently occurs on April 20th and major public smoke-outs and rallies convene throughout the world.

In essence, what started as a meeting time and coded reference between a small group of high school students has become a centerpiece of cannabis culture. The story behind 420 offers an intriguing tale of how certain references and phenomena can start small before eventually reaching global recognition and influence.

From Slang to Holiday 

By the early 2000s, 420 had gone mainstream. April 20th became known as a day to openly celebrate marijuana, with festivals and public smoke sessions. While the exact origins had faded over time, people still recognized that 420 had something to do with cannabis culture.

In the last decade, 420 has blown up into a massive pop culture phenomenon. Brands have latched on to the marketing potential of 4/20 as being tied to cannabis. Politicians now recognize 420 as part of their campaigning related to marijuana legalization. Even professional sports teams have hosted "420 nights" as marijuana becomes more accepted.

While many marijuana enthusiasts treat 4/20 as a lively celebration, others see it as a more solemn day of protest. On April 20th, cannabis legalization activists organized mass smoke-outs to advocate for policy reform and decriminalization. The fact is, that 420 means different things to different people, but it always comes back to marijuana.

The Future of 420

While 420 started small among a group of clandestine high school smokers, each passing year reinforces its firm footing within cannabis culture. And with ever-greater societal acceptance of recreational marijuana use, the future staying power of 420 seems reasonably assured.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, over the coming decades, 420 transforms from a counterculture phenomenon to something closer to a de facto holiday - celebrated openly as both an emblem of victory in the fight to legalize and destigmatize cannabis and as a recurring opportunity to simply partake communally.

Only time will tell, but April 20th has already cemented itself as a red-letter day for marijuana proponents. Here’s to betting 420 maintains its exalted status for generations of smokers to come – from covert teenage rebels to open celebrants of legalized cannabis.

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