Flower to the People: The Origins of 420
April 22, 2021
By Amanda Saylor, PharmD

April 20th, or 4/20, is an unofficial holiday of cannabis culture. The term “420” (pronounced four-twenty) is also often used as a code word for marijuana or the action of using marijuana. While this slang term is widely recognized throughout cannabis culture, the origin of 420 is not as well-known.

There are many myths and rumors about what 420 means and where it originated. One of the most popular myths is that the police radio dispatch code for cannabis possession or public consumption in progress is ‘420’. There was never a police code ‘420’ relating to cannabis and this rumor was incorrectly spread in 1991 by an author from High Times. Some believe that the meaning originated because there are 420 active chemicals in cannabis. This is also inaccurate, as there are over 500 chemical compounds in cannabis; including 120 different terpenes and over 70 cannabinoids found in a standard marijuana plant. Another rumor is that 4/20 is the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death. Although Bob Marley has a place in cannabis history, this is untrue as he died on May 11, 1981.

So, what is the real origin and meaning of 420? It all started in 1971 with 5 high school athletes in San Rafael, California. These 5 friends nicknamed ‘The Waldos’, all agreed to meet at 4:20 p.m., at the statue of chemist Louis Pasteur on the campus of San Rafael High. One of the Waldos was given a treasure map to a patch of marijuana on the Point Reyes Peninsula by a friend whose brother was in the U.S. Coast Guard and was growing cannabis. The Coast Guardsman was paranoid that he would get caught, so he gave permission for the friends to harvest the crop. Each day after their athletic practices ended, they would meet, get high, and drive out to search for the patch.  The Waldos would use the term ‘420 Louie’ as a codeword to remind each other of their afterschool quest. Using this code gave them the ability to communicate in the hallway, in class, and in front of other people without anyone having a clue as to what they were referring to. They eventually dropped the ‘Louie’ part and just used ‘420’ to refer to cannabis and cannabis related activities.

The Waldos never did find the secret cannabis crop and the inside joke would likely have stopped there, if it were not for a fortunate coincidence and one of the most iconic rock bands of all time, The Grateful Dead. By the early 1970s, the Dead had moved their rehearsal space from San Francisco to the Marin County hills which was located only blocks away from the Waldos’ school. In addition to the band being local, one of the Waldos’ father managed real estate for the band and another of the Waldo’s older brother was good friends with Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Because of this connection and their proximity to the band, the Waldos began hanging out in the bands circle where they would often use their term ‘420’. From there, 420 spread through the roadies, band members, and fans until it was common in the underground language of the Dead Head community.

What began as an inside joke between 5 high school friends, spread beyond what any of them could have imagined at the time. 420 has now been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, adding to the legitimacy of the word. 420 is, and will likely always be, a staple of cannabis culture.

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