You may or may not have heard the phrase/time/date ‘420’ in reference to marijuana consumption and/or ‘stoner culture’. It seems that everyone I spoke to had at least a cursory knowledge of the subject, but not many people know the actual origins of how it started and came to be so popular. There are a good many myths surrounding those magic numbers-the time of day, date, and phrase-when said they all seem to spark knowing grins on the faces of the stoners in the room, and if you look carefully you can sometimes see their lighter thumbs start twitching. But what does it really mean and where did the phrase ‘420’ start? I was surprised to learn the origins aren’t nearly as glamorous as I thought (and I should note there seems to be some disagreement on the subject).
While researching ‘420’ I found all sorts of different stories. Many people think that 420 is the police code for smoking in progress (apparently not true anywhere) but every source I found was quick to dismiss that idea. Most sources mention births and deaths of famous celebrities. While April the 20th is Hitler’s birthday it is not at all the origin of the ‘stoner holiday’. I read that many people think 4/20 is the date Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, or perhaps Janice Joplin died, but that isn’t true for any of them. Other sources reference the cannabis plant itself, saying they believe 4/20 is the ideal date for planting (not proven), or that 420 is the number of compounds found in the plant (the number is generally stated to be 300-400 depending on the plant). I read one idea that suggested that maybe 4:20 is the optimum time of day for the body to absorb the most beneficial amounts of the cannabinoids it needs to achieve inner balance (seems a little far-fetched, even for me).
It seems to be pretty common knowledge that 4:20 is known as the ‘time to smoke’ and April 20th is considered a sort of Pot Smoking Holiday, and surprisingly that seems to be the closest it comes to the actual origin. From what I read there are two conflicting stories, both centered around a group of stoners from a high school in San Rafael California in the early 1970’s, who started the trend without intending to at all. One story claims part of the group (who friends called ‘the Waldos’-possibly someone’s last name) started using the phrase because it was their secret code for when they agreed to meet every day after practice (for whatever sport it was they all played) at -you guessed it- 4:20pm to smoke and hang out doing whatever it is high school seniors did back in the 1970’s (probably about the same as now). To be exact, the original phrase was ‘4:20 Louis’ because they would meet by a statue of Louis Pasteur. The conflicting report claims one guy in particular (who knew ‘the Waldos’ and may or may not have been friends with them), nicknamed ‘the Bebe’, was hanging out in his room with a couple buddies about to smoke one day, and simply noted the time was 4:20. He and his friends began using it often enough as a designated smoke time that it became something more people adopted as time went on.
At some point ‘420’ showed up at a ‘Grateful Dead’ concert by way of a flyer, and was reportedly promoted at their concerts everywhere they went, which many believe is the reason for the wide reach and popularity of using the phrase. It turns out that a couple of the kids from ‘the Waldos’ actually hung out with the Grateful Dead and possibly toured with them, so it only seems to further support evidence this little group from California smoked their way into infamy simply by noting the time they lit up.
Whatever the exact start, it seems fitting that the phrase ‘420’ would have sparked from something so simple. According to High Times ‘420 is not so much a time or place as it is a state of mind’, and even though that wasn’t the origin I was searching for, as far as concepts go, when it comes to cannabis I think that’s pretty accurate.
For more detailed information on the origins of ‘420’ feel free to read the links I found in my research: