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A hazy history: The origin of 4/20

Photo Courtesy of Merry Jane's Cannabis

Many stories have been told about the origin of 420. Some believe that it stands for the amount of active chemicals in marijuana, some have said it’s a police code and others go so far as to think it’s a reference to Adolf Hitler’s birthday but contrary to popular belief, all of these stories are false. 420 actually started with five student athletes from San Rafael high school in California. The group of teens called themselves the ‘Waldos’ due to their habit of spending time by a wall outside of the high school.

In 1971 the Waldos caught wind that a Coast Guard member had planted cannabis near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard Station. Curious of where they could find the plant, the group would meet in front of the Louis Pasteur Statue on San Rafael high school campus to conduct a weekly search after practice. And what time was it when all five practices were over by? 4:20 p.m. of course.

In a 2009 interview with The Huffington Post, Steve Capper an original member of the Waldos told The Huffington Post he and his friends would squeeze themselves into a car, smoke some marijuana and search for the plants in Reyes Forest, a nearby hangout destination. According to Capper the students were given a ‘treasure map’ by an anonymous source which lead them straight to the free flower. Word spread soon after and 420 was later used as a term by students to reference marijuana without their parents or teachers knowing what they were actually talking about.

“We would remind each other in the hallways that we were supposed to meet up at 4:20,” Capper told The Huffington Post. “It originally started out as 4:20-Louis, but we eventually dropped the Louis.”

Internationally speaking, 420 did not become known until the 1990s. However, word really started to spread due to the band, The Grateful Dead. It turns out that two of the founding members of the Waldos had connections to The Grateful Dead through close family members and would attend many of the band’s shows.

“There was a place called Winterland and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we were using those phrases so it started spreading through that community,” Capper said.

Former High Times Magazine editor Steve Bloom told The History Channel in a 2017 interview that he heard the term for the first time while at a Grateful Dead Concert in 1990. At the time he was a reporter for the High Times. According to Bloom a ‘Deadhead’ had given him a flyer that said, “We’re going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing.” The flyer also featured the original Waldos. Bloom ended up using the term in one of his articles and once The High Times had used it in their magazine, 420 gained global popularity.

While 4/20 is not an actual holiday, it’s still celebrated worldwide with festivals and ‘smoke outs.’ In 2009 University officials and law enforcement at the University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California, Santa Cruz encouraged students to not attend 420 related events but their efforts were not successful.

Today, 420 is more prevalent than ever. In 2003 California Legislators codified the medical marijuana law that had passed as SB 420. Additionally, the term has also been referenced in movies, music, pop culture and clothing. With more and more states legalizing marijuana both medically and recreationally, talking about marijuana isn’t as taboo as it once was but no one can deny what 420 has stood for in the cannabis community and will continue to stand for, for many years and many more to come.

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