How Did Marijuana Become 420?

For more than 50 years, the term “420” has been the code word for “it’s time to smoke some marijuana.” Its use has spread from a small circle of California high school jocks to the nation of “Deadheads” who followed the iconic Rock band The Grateful Dead to legions of stoners around the globe.

The term has become ubiquitous throughout cannabis and even mainstream culture. It has been immortalized in the name of the annual, international celebration of all things cannabis, 420 Day, on April 20th. It has become a synonym for marijuana e.g., “Dude, this 420 is fire!” And in 2017, it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language.

Where Did the Phrase 420 Come From?

Remember “The Goonies?”

According to Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s book, “Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana,” 420 can be traced back to one fall day in 1971 and a group of teenage tokers from San Rafael, California, who called themselves the Waldos. There was Waldo Steve, Waldo Dave, Waldo Patrick (Dave’s older brother), Waldo Mark and a few others.

Legend has it that a Coast Guard service member was forced to abandon his illegal, outdoor marijuana patch near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. And somehow, Waldo Steve obtained a “treasure map” that supposedly led to its top-secret location. The Waldos decided to find this forsaken flower.

Since all of the Waldos were athletes, they agreed to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside their school after practice at precisely 4:20 PM.

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20,” Waldo Steve said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “It originally started out  4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis.”

Their first attempts to find the hidden crop were unsuccessful, but the Waldos kept looking.

“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 smoked the entire time we were out there,” said Waldo Steve. “We did it week after week. We never actually found the patch.”

Instead, their daily meetings began attracting a lot of new people. The Waldos even printed a flyer promoting what some say was the original 420 Day. It read: “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” Their use of various forms of “420” began to catch on.

“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,” Waldo Steve said. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

The Waldos actually have proof that they coined and used the term in the early ’70s in the form of an old 420 flag and numerous letters with 420 references and early ’70s postmarks. Current entries on Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary also include references to the Waldos, further supporting that provenance.

How Did the Usage of 420 Become So Popular?

How its popular usage grew so quickly is where The Grateful Dead comes in. The collapse of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie utopia in the late ’60s set the stage.

As speed freaks, thugs and con artists took over The Haight, The Grateful Dead picked up and moved to the Marin County hills – as fate would have – just blocks from San Rafael High School. Cue the Twilight Zone theme.

“Marin Country was kind of ground zero for counterculture,” Waldo Steve recalled.

The Waldos had more than just a geographic connection to The Dead. Waldo Mark’s father took care of the band’s real estate and Waldo Patrick managed a Dead sideband. He became good friends with The Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh and the two shared 420 and 420ed together on numerous occasions.

The Dead, recalls Waldo Dave, “had this rehearsal hall on Front Street in San Rafael and they used to practice there. So, we used to go hang out and listen to them play music and get high while they’re practicing for gigs. But I think it’s possible my brother Patrick might have spread it through Phil Lesh. And me, too, because I was hanging out with Lesh and his band [as a roadie] when they were doing a summer tour my brother was managing.”

The media learned of the expression at a parking lot warmup of Deadheads during Christmas week in Oakland in 1990. High Times magazine reporter Steven Bloom was meandering through the maze of hippies that gathered in the parking lot before every Grateful Dead show when a Deadhead handed him a 420 flier. Once High Times got hip to it, the magazine helped take it global.

“I started incorporating it into everything we were doing,” High Times editor Steve Hager told the Huffington Post. “I started doing all these big events – the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup – and we built everything around 420. The publicity that High Times gave it is what made it an international thing.”

High Times astutely purchased the web domain in the early ’90s.

Marijuana Legalization in California That Changed 420

In 2003, when the California legislature codified the medical marijuana law voters had approved, the bill was named SB420. California legislative staffers say that designation was chosen as an homage to the Waldos’ 420 codeword.

“We think it was a staffer working for (lead Assembly sponsor Mark) Leno, but no one has ever fessed up,” said Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbied on behalf of the bill.

Eventually, the use of the term spread throughout popular culture and entertainment. As one particularly famous example, nearly all of the clocks in the hit movie “Pulp Fiction” were set to 4:20, including one in its particularly infamous pawn shop scene.

And, of course, 420 Day on April 20th will forever be observed by cannabis enthusiasts everywhere. It’s perhaps the ultimate honor for a simple, practical term innocently coined in a moment of necessity that grew to epitomize an entire culture and become the stuff of legend.