You’ve probably heard a dozen theories about the history of 420 – like it’s the code cops use to report marijuana smokers or that 4:20 is the best time to consume cannabis – but you may not know the truth. Here we present the history of how the phrase “420” became synonymous with cannabis culture and dubbed April 20th the biggest “weed day” in the world.
It’s been widely reported by The Huffington Post, High Times, Vice and others that the origin of “420” dates back to the fall of 1971 with five friends at San Rafael High School known as the “Waldos,” who took the nickname due to their penchant for hanging out near a short wall outside their school. The story goes that these teens (Dave Reddix, Steve Capper, Mark Gravitch, and two others) caught wind of a rumored cannabis crop hidden somewhere in the forests of Point Reyes, California, that was free to be harvested by whoever could find it. With a hand-drawn map from the Coast Guard service member who could no longer tend his crop – his supervisor was on to him – the friends hatched a plan to find the abandoned marijuana for themselves.
The Waldos started saying “four twenty Louis” amongst themselves at school to covertly remind each other of a planned expedition to look for the marijuana later that day. They would meet after their athletic practices at 4:20 pm by a statue of Louis Pasteur on the grounds of their high school, and from there go on to search for the mystery crop together. After they failed to find the patch of plants, the Waldos shortened their secret saying to just “four twenty” as a way to talk about finding weed or smoking pot without their parents or teachers being any the wiser.
It wasn’t long after “420” became established among the Waldos and their inner circle that a chance set of circumstances set the phrase on its path to immortality. A couple of the Waldos had family connections to the rock band the Grateful Dead, which practiced at a space in San Rafael. Mark’s dad managed some real estate for the band and Dave’s big brother Patrick was good friends with Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist.
Here’s where the collective memory gets a little hazy. The well-connected Waldos were regular fixtures at Grateful Dead rehearsals and parties in San Rafael, but no one knows for sure just how their code word spread. Most think that it was Lesh himself who overheard someone (probably Patrick) saying “four twenty” during their many smoke sessions, but the Waldos admit they were probably using their private phrase openly in those accepting, underground environments to be overheard by everyone.
With this adopted phrase the Grateful Dead toured the world for nearly four decades, passively encouraging the idea that the number 420 was somehow associated with smoking pot among generations of faithful fans. However, it was Steve Hager, an editor for High Times, who helped give “420” global recognition outside of the Dead Head community. Once he heard about this belief about cannabis among Grateful Dead fans, he started to apply “420” to anything he could and helped publicize the yearly return of April 20th as a counter-culture holiday that could always be looked forward to.
As “420” started to take on a life of its own and show up in subculture scenes across the country, the Waldos decided to end the mystery behind the catchphrase’s origins. They reached out to High Times in 1997 with their claim, and Hager met them in San Rafael to look at their evidence. Their story holds weight and has never been challenged. Thanks to the Waldos we now have an excuse to celebrate a little every time 4:20 comes around on the clock, and a lot on one very special day in April. It’s a shame about it being Hitler’s birthday, but the love shown for cannabis and to fellow cannabis users every April 20th far outshines that unhappy coincidence.