Here’s The Real Story Of Why We Celebrate 4/20

April 17, 2017

This article was originally published on April 20, 2009, and has been reposted and updated per year since.

Warren Haynes, the Allman Brothers Band guitarist, routinely plays with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, touring as The Dead. It’s the springtime of 2009, he’s just finished a Dead show in Washington , D.C ., and he gets a pop quiz from The Huffington Post.

Where does “4 20 ” come from?

He pauses and thinks, hands on his sides. “I don’t know the real origin. I know myths and rumors, ” he tells. “I’m really confused about the first time I heard it. It was just a police code for smoking in progress or something. What’s the real narrative? ”

Wavy Gravy is a hippie icon with his own ice cream flavor who has been hanging out with the Dead for decades. HuffPost spots him outside the same concert. Asked about the word 420, he indicates it began “somewhere in the foggy fogs of day. What day is it now? I say to you,’ Eternity now.’”

Depending on whom you ask or their state of inebriation, there are as many assortments of answers as stress of medical bud in California. It’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana. It’s teatime in Holland. It has something to do with Hitler’s birthday. It’s those numbers in that Bob Dylan song multiplied.

The origin of the word 420, celebrated around the world by pot smokers every April 20, has long been obscured by the clouded memories of the folks who stimulated it a phenomenon.

The Huffington Post chased the word back to its roots and was able to find them in a lost patch of cannabis in a Point Reyes, Calif ., forest. Just as interesting as its origin, it turns out, is how it spread.

It starts with the Dead.

It was Christmas week 1990 in Oakland. Steven Bloom was wandering through The Lot, that timeless collect of hippies that springs up in the parking lot before every Grateful Dead concert, when a Deadhead handed him a yellow flyer.

“We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420 -ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset place on Mt. Tamalpais, ” read the message, which Bloom dug up and forwarded to HuffPost. Bloom, then a reporter for High Times publication and now the publisher of and co-author of “Pot Culture, ” had never heard of “4 20 -ing” before.

The flyer came complete with a 420 backstory: “ 420 started somewhere in San Rafael, California in the late’ 70 s. It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress. After local heads heard of the police call, they started use the expres 420 when referring to herb — Let’s Go 420, dude! ”

Bloom reported his find in the May 1991 issue of High Times , which the publication found in its repositories and provided to HuffPost. The narrative, though, was only partially right.

The origin of 420 had nothing to do with a police code, though the San Rafael part was dead-on. A group of five San Rafael High School friends known as the Waldos — by virtue of their choice hangout place, a wall outside the school — coined the word in 1971.

The Waldos never envisaged that pot smokers the world over would celebrate each April 20 as a result of their foray into the Point Reyes forest. The day has managed to become something of a national holiday in the face of official censure. Officials at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of California, Santa Cruz, which boast two of the biggest “smokeouts, ” pushed back in 2009 in typical fashion.

“As another April 20 approaches, we are faced with fears from students, parents, alumni, Regents, and community members about a repeat of last year’s 4/20′ event, ’” wrote Boulder’s chancellor in a letter to students. “On April 20, 2009, we hope that you will choose not to take part in unlawful activity that devalues the reputation of your University and degree, and will encourage your fellow Buff to act with pride and remember whom they really are.”

But the Cheshire cat is out of the suitcase. Students and locals will show up around four, light up at 4:20 and be gone shortly thereafter. No bands , no speakers , no chants. Just a bunch of people getting together and get stoned.


Today the code often creeps into popular culture and mainstream decideds. Some of the clocks in “Pulp Fiction, ” for instance, are set to 4:20. A “Price Is Right” contestant won YouTube celebrity by bidding either $ 420 or$ 1 , 420 for everything. In 2003, when the California Legislature codified the medical marijuana statute that voters had approved, the bill was named SB 420 .

“We think it was a staffer working for[ result Assembly sponsor Mark] Leno, but no one has in the past fessed up, ” tells Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbied on behalf of the bill.

California legislative staffers spoken to for this story say that the 420 designation remains a mystery, but that both Leno and the result Senate sponsor, John Vasconcellos, are hip enough that they must have known what it entail. Vasconcellos says he has no idea how it got the number 420 and wouldn’t have known what it meant at the time.( If you were involved with SB 420 and know the narrative, email me .)

The code also pops up in Craigslist postings when fellow smokers search for “ 420 friendly” roommates. “It’s simply a vaguer way of saying it, and it kind of induces it kind of cool, ” tells Bloom, the pot journalist. “Like, you know you’re in the know, but that does show you how it’s in the mainstream.”

The Waldos have proof, however, that they used the word in the early’ 70 s. When HuffPost spoke with the men in 2009, they requested anonymity, preferring to go by the names they call each other — Waldo Steve, Waldo Dave, Waldo Mark, etc. Pot was still, after all, illegal.

Since then, however, California has decriminalized possession of marijuana so that get snagged expenses little more than a parking ticket. Medical marijuana shops dot the landscape, and the plant has become dramatically more culturally acceptable.

In the springtime of 2012, they agreed to go on the record with HuffPost.

“The baby boomers have been taking over. People are succumbing off. The generations behind them are penalty, ” explains Steve Capper.

“I suppose I read lately a poll where somewhere like 47 percentage of the American public are okay with marijuana, ” tells Dave Reddix.( In March 2012, a Rasmussen poll detected 47 percentage of Americans subsistence legalization of marijuana .)

Mark Gravitch also agreed to be identified. The other two aren’t yet ready.

The Waldos’ narrative runs like this: One day in the fall of 1971 — harvest time — the Waldos get word of a Coast Guard service member, Gary Newman,who could no longer tend his plot of marijuana plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. A rich map in hand, the Waldos decided to pluck some of the free bud.

The Waldos, who were all athletes, agreed to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside the school at 4:20 p.m ., after practise, to begin the hunt.

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20 -Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis, ” Capper, 57, says.

The first forays were successful, but the group maintained looking for the hidden crop. “We’d meet at 4:20 and get in my old’ 66 Chevy Impala, and, of course, we’d smoke instantaneously and smoke all the way out to Point Reyes and smoke the entire day we were out there. We did it week after week, ” tells Capper. “We never actually detected the patch.”

But they did find a useful codeword. “I could say to one of my friends, I’d go,’ 420, ’ and it was telepathic. He would know if I was telling,’ Hey, do you wanna go smoke some? ’ Or,’ Do you have any? ’ Or,’ Are you stoned right now? ’ It was kind of telepathic simply from the way you said it, ” Capper tells. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”


It’s one thing to identify the origin of the word. But Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary already included references to the Waldos by 2009, when HuffPost first wrote this account. The bigger question: How did 420 spread from a circle of California stoners across the globe?

As fortune would have it, the collapse of San Francisco’s hippie utopia in the late’ 60 s defined the stage. As velocity freaks, thugs and con artists took over The Haight, the Grateful Dead packed up and moved to the Marin County mounds, simply blocks from San Rafael High School.

“Marin County was kind of ground zero for the counterculture, ” tells Capper.

The Waldos had more than a geographical connection to the Dead. Mark Gravitch’s father took care of real estate for the Dead. And Dave Reddix’s older brother, Patrick, managed a Dead sideband and was good friends with bassist Phil Lesh. Patrick Reddix tells HuffPost that he smoked with Lesh on numerous occasions. He couldn’t remember if he used the word 420 around Lesh, but guessed that he must have.

The Dead, recollects Dave Reddix, 57, “had this rehearsal foyer on Front Street, San Rafael, California, 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 practise 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 bands that Patrick managed for Lesh were called Too Loose to Truck and Sea Stones; they featured not only Lesh but rock legend David Crosby and acclaimed guitarist Terry Haggerty.

The Waldos also had open access to Dead parties and rehearsals. “We’d go with[ Mark’s] papa, who was a hip papa from the’ 60 s, ” tells Capper. “There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re use those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something,’ Hey, 420. ’ So it started spreading through that community.”

Lesh, strolling off stage after a Dead concert in 2009, confirms that Patrick Reddix is a friend and says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Waldos had coined 420 . He isn’t sure, he tells, the first time he heard it. “I do not remember. I’m very sorry. I wish I could help, ” he says.

As the Grateful Dead toured through the’ 70 s and’ 80 s, playing hundreds of presents a year, the word spread though the Dead underground. Once High Times get hip to it, the publication helped take it global.

“I started incorporating it into everything we were doing, ” Steve Hager, then editor of High Times , tells HuffPost in 2009. “I started doing all these big events — the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup — and we constructed everything around 420 . The publicity that High Times dedicated it is what stimulated it an international thing. Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture. But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.”

Sometime in the early’ 90 s, High Times wisely bought the web domain420. com.

The Waldos told that it took simply a few years for the word to spread throughout San Rafael and start cropping up elsewhere in the state. By the early’ 90 s, it had penetrated far enough that Dave Reddix and Steve Capper began hearing people use it in unexpected places — Ohio, Florida, Canada — and spotted it painted on signs and scratched into park benches.

In 1998, the Waldos decided to set the record straight and get in touch with High Times .

“They said,’ The fact is, there is no 420 [ police] code in California. You guys ever seem it up? ’” Bloom recollects. He had to admit that , no, he had never appeared it up. Hager flew out to San Rafael, met the Waldos, examined their proof, spoke with others in town, and concluded the latter are telling the truth.

“No one’s ever been able to come up with any utilize of 420 that predates the 1971 utilization, which they had established. So unless somebody can come up with something that predates them, then I don’t suppose anybody’s going to get credit for it other than them, ” Hager says.

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