Today, when you see or hear the numbers “4-20”, you know someone is talking about weed. The cannabis culture has included the concept of 420 since long before the first legalization. The popularity of the number in relation to cannabis was spread by the Grateful Dead and High Times magazine. But where does this association actually come from? Why do we all toke at 420 to honor our favorite subculture and substance? Why has April 20th become Cannabis Day for festivals and private parties across the nation and – now – across the world?
If you’re not sure where 420 comes from, you’re not alone. A lot has been guessed about the source of this mysterious association. Is it a police code for weed? Is it evidence of a secret society? Is there deep hidden meaning in the numbers? In fact, even some of the first printed media that mentions 420 got the origin wrong.
420 really comes from five teenagers in the early ’70s who happened to hang out with the Grateful Dead back in the day.
The Waldos and the Louis 4:20 Adventure
Once upon a time there were five teenagers in San Rafael, California who hung out next to a particular wall. As is typical of teenagers, they were deemed the “Waldos” for their love of hanging near this wall.
In 1971, the Waldos heard about a rogue coast guard member who had a secret patch of cannabis somewhere in the nearby forest. Word had it that the coast guard could no longer tend their crop and they (somehow) received a treasure map to go find the hidden leafy greens.
Every day, they would remind themselves to meet by the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 PM, after sports practice. They’d look at each other, wink and say “Louis 4-20” as a fun reminder of their search. They would load into the car they shared, smoke a joint, and go treasure hunting.
The Waldos never found that hidden patch, but the use of “4:20”, their afterschool meeting time, became a nudge-wink code for smoking after school either way. In fact, it was so effective that the code lasted much longer than the treasure hunt for the hidden weed patch.
The Dawn of the Cannabis Code Word
According to the group, the term “420” became almost telepathic. One Waldo would look at another and say “420?”. Depending on how it was said, and the context, it could mean:
“Hey, are you high right now?” or perhaps “Wanna smoke out?” or “Do you have some?” or “Should we go get some?” or most commonly “Let’s meet to smoke”.
The kids realized that their teachers and parents had no idea what 420 meant. They could talk about cannabis out in the open without getting in trouble or raising alarms. That alone was so much fun that it became a regular code word for the group.
Hanging with the Grateful Dead
So we have five teenagers with a code-word, but how does that take the nation by storm? Kids invent new code words for weed all the time, and only some of them become a nationally recognized phrase.
The key is the Waldos’ connection to the Grateful Dead. Remember, this is the early 70s, still. One of the Waldos had a father who handled the Dead’s real estate. Another Waldo had an older brother who was good friends with the Dead bassist Phil Lesh. This got the kids a lot of downtime access to the band, and their inside jokes soon spread from Lesh to the rest of the Dead.
The Waldos reference this one performance area called Winterland where they were constantly backstage, running around helping out and hanging out with the band as roadies.
The Waldos reminisce that they definitely referred to cannabis as 420 around the Dead, and soon the band picked up the term as a fun code word that authority figures weren’t aware of. As soon as it entered their musical repertoire, the ball was rolling and there was no way to stop it.
Printed by High Times
Now, what’s really interesting is where the misinformation gets started. The 420 memetic virus was spreading, but no one actually knew the five teenage roadies who thought of the idea in the first place. So in the way of stoners passing the joint, theories were spun – and some of them were printed. There are copies of old flyers and articles from High Times touting 420 as coming originally from a police code, which is the leading myth for the 420 origin story.
The first known 420 flyer printed by Huffington Post was, interestingly, half-right and half-wrong. The flyer, passed around by deadheads, claimed that 420 came from San Rafael, CA in the “Late 70s”, but claims it was originally a police code. This just goes to show that stoner culture has always been a cosmic game of “telephone”.
However, another article by the High Times in 1998 cleared up the issue by printing the original story of the Waldos, the search for the mystery cannabis patch, and their connection with the Grateful Dead. Anyone who caught that article has known the unlikely secret for nearly two decades.
The Pot of Gold at the End of the 420 Treasure Hunt
420 started as a code phrase for a cannabis treasure hunt. This entire culture of festivals, identification, and decoration – right down to the SB 420 legal bill – began when five teens met at a statue after school to find a mystery patch of weed. A patch of weed that they never actually found.
What they did find was an entire culture of fellow potheads ready to take on the code phrase and the hunt for accessible, hassle-free smoke. Today, the rallying cry of 420 has brought us into a world where you don’t have to hunt for a hidden patch of cannabis to get high without hassle. You don’t have to use secret code words to meet your friends at the statue for a toke.
In honor of the Waldos, the Grateful Dead, and everyone who has waved a 420 banner for legalization, let’s 420 at 4:20 on 4/20. For everyone who started the ball rolling and who fought the good fight to get us here.
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