What is 420 and how did April 20th become a cannabis holiday?

What started as an inside codeword between five California high school students in 1971 has grown into a national holiday for cannabis in the US and Canada on April 20. Because of the corona crisis, many 420 events will go online this year. But what exactly is 420 and what does it mean?

The Waldos
The year is 1971, the place is the high school in San Rafael, Northern California. A group of five toking friends, who call themselves the Waldos because they always lean against a certain school wall, get a tip. Somewhere in the nearby Point Reyes National Park, a coastguard has had to abandon his field of cannabis plants. The Waldos decide to start looking for the plants, which are almost ready for harvest: free weed!

Smoking a joint together
The five Waldo’s, Steve, Mark, Dave, Larry and Jeffrey, love weed, but they also love sports. They agree to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur after their training, to search for the weed garden at Point Reyes by car, at twenty minutes past four, 420 (pronounced four-twenty). This is the code word to remind each other of their appointment, first ‘420-Louis’, then simply 420. The Waldos never succeed in finding the plants, but they continue to use 420 as a code word for getting together to smoke a joint.

The Waldo’s during a recent reunion (Photo: The Waldos via Leafly)

The Grateful Dead
This explains the origin of the term. 420 is not a police code for cannabis nor the number of active ingredients in the plant. And 420 is not a reference to the date of the death of Bob Marley, Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix (none of whom died on April 20). But how did 420 go from a high school joke to a worldwide cultural phenomenon? A band, The Grateful Dead, and a magazine, High Times, were instrumental in this process. The Grateful Dead had direct connections with one of the Waldos, so the band picked up 420, as did the Deadheads, their loyal fan base.

High Times news editor Steve Bloom first came across the story of the Waldos and 420 on a flyer at a Grateful Dead concert in 1990. Steve Hager, former editor-in-chief of High Times, told The Huffington Post in 2010: “I started incorporating it into everything we were doing. I started doing all these big events – the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup – and we built everything around 420.” Steve Bloom gives High Times much less credit in the article: “We posted that flyer and then we started to see little references to it. It wasn’t really much of High Times doing. We weren’t really pushing it that hard, just kind of referencing the phrase.

Be that as it may, High Times bought the domain name 420.com around 1990 and 420 is now a global cannabis culture phenomenon. It is 4:20 PM every day and April 20th is celebrated as a cannabis holiday in the US, Canada and to a lesser extent in other countries. In the Netherlands, Nol van Schaik and Rinus “Suver Nuver” Beintema have organized 420 celebrations in Amsterdam.

420 year
2020 was set to be the ultimate 420 year; April 2020 is an entire month of 4-20. But then the corona virus appeared and the world went into lockdown. Leafly’s editor-in-chief Bruce Barcott found out that in many US states the peak in corona cases is expected around or even on April 20th. In the weekly Leafly podcast The Roll Up (episode 136), Barcott said in early April:

Strangely enough a lot of states are going to see their peak caseloads around 420, April 20th, the cannabis freedom celebration. So it’s been interesting, Hannah and I were in a meeting trying to figure out: look, what can we do with 420 this year? It typically is a huge holiday for cannabis lovers around the world and in the US we have festivals and events in Denver, in Boston, Vancouver, Seattle, all these places. And obviously none of these live events are happening this year.

Relief and respect
The task is to find a balance between offering distraction and respecting the seriousness of the situation. Barcott: “We’re trying to find and round up and give some amplification to the online events that are happening. Some artists are doing online concerts and live streaming. But also it’s like, given that the heaviest caseloads are expected around that third week of April, we’re trying to do our best to balance the need to give people uplift and some sort of relief for the onslaught of bad news and anxiety, with the need to be respectful and acknowledge the difficult time we’re in.

Brutal repression
So what about the Waldos, how are they doing? In a recent photo of a reunion, all five of them look happy and healthy. Waldo Dave Capper gave an interview to Leafly last week, recalling why he and his friends needed a codeword back in 1971: The brutal repression against cannabis. Waldo Dave: “Back in the 1970s, we did what we needed to do to adapt to the environment—all the drug suppression. We figured out a code to be able to talk amongst ourselves in that environment. We adapted bongs out of Coke cans and watermelons and apples. Now, it’s no different. We have to adapt, so we adapt.Virtual Event Guides

Curious about the online 420 events happening on April 20? Check the virtual event guides on Celebstoner.com or Leafly.

Happy 420!

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