The Real History of 420

byeearlenbaugh5 minutes

What does 420 stand for?

If you consume cannabis, you’re probably familiar with this popular number. It’s a code that cannabis consumers use frequently, but it can mean a lot of different things in different contexts.

Historically, 420 has always been an easy way for cannabis consumers to identify each other or discuss the plant publicly in a discreet way. If you see “420-friendly” on a listing for a house rental or on an event announcement, it means cannabis is welcome. If someone asks you if you want to 420, they’re asking if you want to enjoy cannabis with them.

The word 420 is also taken as a time to consume cannabis—there’s a tradition of people smoking cannabis at 4:20 (a.m. or p.m.). April 20 is an epic celebration of the potent plant, where cannabis users congregate together to enjoy cannabis and often to protest unfair laws prohibiting it. What’s the most important time to smoke on 420? You guessed it… 4:20.

But how did 420 get started? Who came up with this cannabis code that spread through the culture like wildfire?

420 Marijuana Myths

Before we get into the real story of 420, we should probably address the many 420 myths floating in the ethos. I’d always heard that 420 was the police code for a marijuana violation. If the cops were busting someone for cannabis possession, they’d say they had a 420 on their hands. The story was that once cannabis users learned this, they began to use the code themselves.

This story seems plausible enough (if you ignore the fact that using the police code would make their cannabis conversations more noticeable, not less so, if they were overheard by police). But, this popular origin story, which may be the most commonly repeated 420 tale, turns out to be false.

Other myths about how 420 came to stand for cannabis include:

  • It’s the number of active compounds in cannabis.
  • It’s the number you get when you multiply 12 and 35, the numbers on Bob Dylan’s two different renditions of the song “Rainy Day Women” (which has the refrain “everybody must get stoned").
  • It has something to do with 420 being Adolf Hitler's birthday.
  • It’s the best time of day to start relaxing with cannabis.

The Real 420 Origin Story

While the 420 myths have been spread widely, several news organizations have done the fact-checking on this story. The infamous code word 420 actually originated in San Rafael, CA. It was there that the real story of 420 began with a group of cannabis-smoking high-schoolers who called themselves the Waldos.

The story goes like this: One day, in the fall of 1971, the Waldos heard that there was a field of untended cannabis plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. Determined to find the field, and poach some of the marijuana for themselves, they decided to meet up after school to go searching for it.

Since they were all athletes, they had to meet after practice … at 4:20 p.m.

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20.” Says Waldo Steve, one of the 420 slang creators, about the day in question.

But the search didn’t go well, and the Waldos came up empty-handed. Still, they were determined and started making regular trips after school to continue their treasure hunt. “We’d meet at 4:20 and get in my old ’66 Chevy Impala and, of course, we’d smoke instantly and smoke all the way out to Point Reyes and smoke the entire time we were out there. We did it week after week,” Waldo Steve explains.

While they never found the illusive field of cannabis, they did stumble upon 420 as a fantastic code word for cannabis.

“I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, ‘420,’ and it was telepathic. He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it,” Steve recalls. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

The Waldos have several items from those times that reference 420 before anyone else did—a flag, some letters. It’s clear their story holds up.

How 420 Spread

So how did 420 go from being an inside joke between some high schoolers to an internationally known code? You can thank the Grateful Dead.

These renowned musicians and icons of cannabis culture were living in the same area and actually knew the Waldos through Waldo Mark’s dad, who took care of the Dead’s estate. Waldo Dave’s older brother Patric, managed a Grateful Dead sideband and was good friends with the band’s bassist Phil Lesh. Through these connections, the Waldos were able to attend parties and rehearsals with the band, and their 420 slang began to seep into the vocabulary of the band and those around them. As they toured, the lingo spread to more areas, and more people began to use the 420 code.

Then in the ’90s, a High Times reporter found a flyer at a Grateful Dead concert advertising a 420 smokeout on 420 at 4:20. The reporter, Steven Bloom, was intrigued and decided to publish it in High Times. Now 420 had a much larger platform to spread to the masses.

Unfortunately, the flyer also shared the myth that 420 had started because cops use the code 420 for marijuana violations. While this spread a false origin story, it also spread the 420 slang and the tradition of gathering on 420, and smoking at 4:20 p.m. that cannabis users know and practise today.

Canadian 420 Rituals

Canada is no exception to the 420 culture. Canadians also gather on April 20 in public places to consume cannabis and protest unjust cannabis legislation. Every year, Canadians flood the public locations throughout the country to consume marijuana and show solidarity in support of the cannabis cause. Though this year people are also using 420 to celebrate the upcoming marijuana legalization.


Everyone celebrates 420 in their own way, and that might mean protesting in public or just partying with your cannabis community. For many, 420 involves dressing up in cannabis-themed clothing, making cannabis edibles to share, and generally taking the day to enjoy and celebrate everything that makes cannabis great.

How do you celebrate 420? Share your traditions in the comments below.

Photo credit: Jurassic Blueberries