Both cannabis enthusiasts and non-consumers alike are familiar with 420 and its existence as a numerical code for cannabis as well as a day to honor the plant and its culture. Despite the common knowledge surrounding 420, for many, the origins of this association remain unknown. Over the years there have been plenty of rumors and theories surrounding the history of 420, though some have become more popular than others. Nowadays, 420 is celebrated internationally, and the use of 420 referring to cannabis is well known and documented. Today we delve into some theories surrounding how 420 first became associated with cannabis.
There are theories that Bob Dylan was the mind behind 420 with his song ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 released in 1966. This one was well received due to a recurring line in the song “everybody must get stoned” and the fact that 12 x 35 = 420. Another interesting explanation that went around was the belief that 420 was a police radio code for cannabis use. This one was easy to debunk, as there is no known use of 420 as a code relating to cannabis in law enforcement. Similarly people have claimed that the 420 code refers to a California criminal code for weed, but the state’s penal code section 420 actually refers to the obstruction of entry into public land. (However in 2003 California passed Senate Bill 420 also known as the Medical Marijuana Program Act, though no one seems to want credit for the bills assigned number).
In 2021, we believe the true origins of 420 date back to 1971 with a group of teenagers in Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area who called themselves ‘The Waldos’. They were said to have received a map from a friend, who’s brother was a Coast Guard growing cannabis in a hidden patch. The original grower was too paranoid to harvest his crop, and gave the high schooler’s permission to harvest it themselves if they could find it. They would meet up at 4:20 after school to get high and search for the cannabis patch. Unfortunately their search yielded no results, but the friends still gathered to smoke and later used 420 as a code for cannabis itself. Their use of 420 as a code is well documented. They mention it brazenly in their high school yearbook, have dated mailed letters communicating with one another using the term, and even created a 420 flag for their group back in the day.
But how did a group of teenagers code-word for pot become so popular and widespread in a time before things went ‘viral’? It seems we have the Grateful Dead community to thank for this! One of the Waldo’s had an older brother who was a good friend of Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead. The brother would manage Phil’s side gigs and other bands, and the Waldo’s would work the shows. The friends had opportunities to meet Phil and other other musicians, smoke with the band, and share the use of their phrase ‘420’. Postmarked letters between two of the Waldo’s discussing these events speak to the legitimacy of this origin story. The term was popularized among followers of The Grateful Dead, and slowly more and more people picked up on it. The use of 420 spread alongside the popularity of the band, and was picked up by pot smokers across the country.
As the populrity of 420 increased, people started wondering how exactly 420 came to be what it is today. Theories spread and went unconfirmed until the Waldo’s got their chance to speak up. The term became increasingly well known, and is now widely used internationally. People in countries across the world are now familiar with 420, and it seems that the numerical association to pot is here to stay. Today 420 represents cannabis and its culture, and is recognized on April 20th as a way to celebrate the plant. On that note, roll up and have a very happy 420!