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What is 420?

What is 420?

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Said with a wink, a nod, a smile, and a joint held sky-high, “420” is a cannabis codeword with a definition known the world over: now is the time to get high. 420 has also bred “4/20” the unofficial International Weed Day in which cannabis fans the world over toast all things marijuana, and get lifted with a little extra fervor. But why are those three numbers synonymous with weed, and how did 420 become 420? 

The meaning of 420 – where did it come from?

Chances are you’ve heard at least a few theories about where 420 originated. Often said with a confident nod halfway through a smoke session, these include “420 is Bob Marley’s birthday” (he was born in February) or “it’s the day Bob Marley died” (he died in May, 1981), some say it refers to the number of chemicals in cannabis (wrong again) and there are those who say its the police code for a weed bust (still no). 

To get to the real story, we need to hop in a time machine to the early 70s in Northern California, where a group of teenage potheads and adventure seekers had no idea that they were writing their own chapter in marijuana legend and creating a slang term that will probably outlive all of us. 

At San Rafael High School, a group of friends that called themselves “the Waldos” would meet for “missions” around the Bay Area. These were the type of aimless, “nowhere to go and plenty of time to do it” adventures that are the hallmark of being 16 with a driver’s license, especially back in the days long before smartphones. 

As Waldos member Steve Capper told International High Life in 2020, “We didn’t just sit around getting high on a couch; there was always a mission to complete. Creating new missions, it was a goal to figure out weird, strange original things to do.”

As the story goes (and they have the receipts to prove it on their website), one fateful school day in 1971, the gang heard about a secret Coast Guard marijuana grow hidden somewhere on the Pacific coast near San Rafael – and the hunt was on. 

The Waldos cooked up a plan to meet at a statue of Louis Pasteur on campus at 4:20pm to start their search, and whispered to each other in the hallways a fateful code word indeed: “4:20 Louie.”

The crew eventually dropped “Louie” and 4:20 became their code word for adventure, the signal that it was time for weed-fueled hijinks and cruising wherever the day takes you with the windows rolled down and the radio blaring. 

That all makes sense, but how did this phrase spoken by a small group of stoners at a single Bay Area high school become known the world over? 

The world of cannabis – at least in northern California in the 1970s – can be a small world. The brother of one of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, worked for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in the 70s. Reddix told InternationalHighLife he shared the 420 story with Lesh and other fellow travelers like David Crosby, who carried it to the wider world of weed and hijinks and the rest is history. 

What 420 is not 

Not to disappoint your cousin, your first dealer, or whoever it was who first told you the (false) origin story of 420 with absolute certainty, but these are some of the most debunkable 420 origin stories out there:  

Bob Marley’s birthday or date of death 

As was mentioned above, April 20th is not Bob Marley’s birthday or date of birth, and just to be on the safe side, we checked and Peter Tosh’s birthday and date of birth are October 19th and September 11th, respectively. 

Police radio code for weed 

“420” is not police radio code for a weed bust (the closest number, 417, means “brandishing a weapon,” according to Stanford University. Stanford also writes that the radio code for “possession of marijuana for sales” is “11359,” which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue). And even if it was, it wouldn’t make much sense for stoners to run around shouting it to each other. 

The number of chemicals in cannabis

There are more than 550 chemical compounds in cannabis. Most people would be hard-pressed to think of more than two (Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, and Cannabidiol, CBD) regardless. 

The best time of day to get high or best time of year to plant weed 

This may be the most compelling fake origin story because it’s also so relative. For countless people, 4:20 pm is the perfect time to get high, especially a teenage weed head who just got out of school and has the rest of the day to kill. And April 20th could be a great time to plant weed, depending on the climate where you live. On the other hand, indoor grows can be done year-round no matter the climate, and 4:20pm isn’t the best time to get high for those of us who have kids to pick up in the afternoon, jobs that run past 5pm, and so on. This is a compelling one, but still false. 

When is 420 – and how do we celebrate?

If large crowd gatherings to get high aren’t your thing, just getting high yourself is a great way to celebrate 4/20 too (Shutterstock)

Neither of these should probably come as a shock, but 420 the holiday of sorts is celebrated each year on April 20th (4/20), and most people celebrate just like you’d expect – by getting high. 

In the marijuana industry, throughout April this can take the form of countless holiday sales and product roll-outs, press releases on where legalization stands as of this 420, and calls for all of us, everywhere to mark the day by taking a moment to celebrate weed (in case we needed any encouragement). 

Among cannabis fans, 4/20 can be an actual day to mark by meeting up with friends or hitting up a festival like Denver’s Flyhi, which in the days before the COVID-19 pandemic was a celebration of all things weed held in the city’s Civic Center Park.   

Other events include concerts, festivals, and meetups held in cities from Portland to Toronto to London and wherever potheads like to gather. 

Ultimately, 4/20 is perfectly situated to not really need an excuse to celebrate. It’s held in the heart of Spring, in that sweet spot between the end of winter and the punishing heat of summer (depending on where you live), and it lends itself very easily to sunny outdoors get-togethers shrouded in weed smoke. 

4/20 has also traditionally been a day to hold legalization rallies and demonstrations for the cause of cannabis and criminal justice reform. It’s a date that every supporter knows, and there is little chance that they’re going to forget when it’s held, or what it’s about. 

The significance of 420 today

With recreational cannabis now legal in 18 states and Washington DC, and with medical marijuana programs in 37 states, one could argue that the significance of 420 has dimmed a bit in recent years. 

Cannabis is now firmly part of the mainstream across North America and to a growing extent across Europe as well. The plant’s underground status as a drug that can get you locked up in no time has faded somewhat for many people, and with that, some of the draw of hush, hush, wink, wink, stoner code words and culture. 

Today, 420 is perhaps most often used in marketing. This can be in the form of sales and special 420 offers by cannabis companies, or in 420-timed email blasts and press releases by cannabis reform advocates. 

It can also be seen in the countless bumper stickers, t-shirts, and lighters sold at head shops across the globe, or in the names of Dutch coffeeshops

What does “420 friendly” mean?

In a similar vein, the term “420 friendly” has entered the lexicon in recent years, in keeping with the era of spreading cannabis legalization. 

420 friendly is used as a promotional term to note that a certain establishment allows or even encourages the consumption of marijuana, and that cannabis fans don’t need to leave their weed at home or worry about getting busted. 

This is arguably most prominent in the field of “420 friendly hotels,” which are vacation and short-term rentals that advertise as “420 friendly” in order to inform potential guests that it’s a safe place for them to stay. Such hotels are most common in legal weed states like Colorado, Washington, or Oregon, where the words “420 friendly,” can be used as a clever way to attract the cannabis fan on the road. 

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