A ubiquitous term in cannabis culture, 420 has many meanings, myths, and messaging embedded in pop culture.
The term — at its most basic level — refers to the consumption of cannabis and cannabis culture. Often presented as 420, it signifies the time in which to consume cannabis (4:20 p.m. and/or a.m.) and the date (April 20) to celebrate cannabis globally. 420 has also been used as a shorthand to imply a level of acceptance for cannabis use, culture, and lifestyle.
What is the origin of 420?
The most widely accepted origin story belongs to a group of San Rafael High School friends who called themselves the Waldos, as they often hung out by a wall outside of their school. They coined the term in 1971 to refer to their after-school trips in search of a mysterious treasure trove of marijuana planted by US Coast Guardsman Gary Newman growing somewhere in Point Reyes.
Newman's brother-in-law bequeathed the Waldos a treasure map, saying that the marijuana crop was theirs for the taking should they find it. The Waldos referred to the operation as “420 Louis,” a coded invitation to meet at 4:20 PM after sports practice at the statue of Louis Pasteur in front of campus. Eventually, the phrase was shortened to “420,” and even though they stopped looking for the mystery marijuana, the term stuck.
Steven Hager, as editor of High Times magazine, played a large part in heightening the 420 mythos when he published an article in May 1991, attributing the phrase to Grateful Dead followers and championing the use of 4:20 as the socially acceptable time for cannabis consumption and 4/20, or April 20th, as the day of celebration.
On December 28, 1990, a group of “Deadheads” in Oakland handed out flyers at an Oakland Grateful Dead show, inviting people to smoke “420 on April 20th at 4:20 PM.” Hager received one of these flyers, eventually publishing it in the May 1991 issue, advancing the notion of 4/20 as a “stoner holiday.” In 1998, High Times acknowledged the Waldos as the “inventors” of 420. The Waldos have a website dedicated to their origin story, with videos and documented proof supporting their claims.
Myths surrounding 420
Some of the most prevalent and popular discussions about 420 revolve around its origins. Before the Waldos' story came to light and was (mostly) accepted as the official origin of the code term, some of the most popular myths included:
California Penal Code
A common belief is that 420 is the penal code California police officers use to report marijuana use. There is no evidence to support this theory. In fact, section 420 of the California Penal Code pertains to obstruction of access to public lands, which is a misdemeanor.
Chemicals in Cannabis
Another common belief is there being 420 active chemicals in cannabis, including among them CBD, the second-most abundant and nonintoxicating cannabinoid in the plant. As there are more than 500 active chemicals found in cannabis, this theory is bunk.
Bob Dylan's “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”
A lesser-known theory dissects Bob Dylan's “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” title and lyrics.
Dylan croons throughout the song, “Everybody must get stoned.” But the lesser-known part of the theory includes the #12 and 35 part of the title: if you multiply 12 x 35 you get 420.
International holiday, day of protest, and other events:
April 20 has become a national holiday for cannabis, inspiring many to advocate for its legalization, normalize its use, educate on all things cannabis and hemp-related, and celebrate its culture. Originally considered a counterculture day of protest, spreading cannabis legalization and awareness have evolved 4/20 into a hybridized global movement spurred on by mainstream commercialism. Even cannabis-shy newcomers to 420 have started celebrating the holiday using the non-intoxicating CBD instead of THC, due in part to its recent prevalence as a result of the 2018 US Farm Bill and WHO's 2019 statement on its safety.
As legalization pushes cannabis into the mainstream and marijuana revenue rises, media publications and outlets have begun to cover 4/20 as a consumer interest story. In turn, the number of 4/20 rallies, trade shows, concerts, and other events has begun to rise as legalization becomes more widespread.
In Denver, The Cannabis Cup has become one of the most recognizable 420 events within the cannabis industry.
In San Francisco, thousands gather on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate, celebrating cannabis with hemp-woven products, glasswork, weed-inspired art, music, and — more recently — legalized consumption. Canadian cannabis enthusiasts unofficially celebrate 4/20 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario; the Mount Royal monument in Montreal; the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton, Alberta; and the Vancouver Art Gallery and Sunset Beach in Vancouver.
420 in politics and policy
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Center for Substance Abuse Prevention published a document online called “It's 4:20: do you know where your teen is?”
In 2003, California introduced Senate Bill 420 to regulate the medical use of marijuana, titled in deliberate reference to the 420 of cannabis culture. Another bill in 2010, named Bill 420, failed to legalize cannabis in Guam.
420 in pop culture
In pop culture, 420 has been routinely referenced in numerous films and television series, most often placed as intentional inside jokes for viewers to find. More overt references to 420 include releasing marijuana-related works (songs, episodes) on April 20. Some of the most popular references include:
- Pulp Fiction: In one of the film's most infamous scenes, all of the clocks on the wall of the pawn shop are set to 4:20.
- Family Guy: “420” was the name of the 12th episode of the seventh season. The episode aired April 19, 2009, a day before 4/20, with a storyline centered around cannabis legalization.
- Willie Nelson: On April 20, 2012, Nelson released a single titled “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” from his album “Heroes.”
420 in practice
While 420 the holiday falls on April 20th, you can celebrate any day of the year simply by consuming and appreciating cannabis. It's never been easier to research cannabis products and find a dispensary near you. The breadth and depth of information can be intimidating at first, but remember: it doesn't matter if you're new to weed or have decades of experience. When it comes to cannabis, there's a place for everybody.