The most popular versions usually start somewhere with the Grateful Dead. And that may or may not be accurate — but you have to admit that it makes perfect sense for the history of weed’s biggest day to be as foggy as the minds of the people who created it. Here's how it really went down:
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Though the Dead became an integral part of the lore surrounding the 420 holiday — and ensured that the popularity spread — it turns out that the real origins of the holiday have nothing to do with the band. Instead, they can be traced back to a group of California high school students. In the fall of 1971, a group of students in San Rafael, California hatched a plan: They called themselves the “Waldos,” in honor of the wall outside the high school they had staked as their hangout spot.
The Waldos were in possession of a mysterious treasure map they'd received from a marijuana grower. The map supposedly contained directions to a hidden, abandoned crop of cannabis — and the Waldos were eager to find it.
They decided the Louis Pasteur statue on the grounds of their high school was the ideal meetup spot and 4:20pm the ideal time. From there, “4:20 Louis” became their signal to gather. And, since no cannabis hunting adventure would be complete without first getting stoned, from then on 4:20 was the Waldos' designated time to spark up.
Sadly, they never found the cannabis treasure promised by the map. However, the Waldos' inside joke has since become the international code word for smoking weed.
Better Off Dead
There's another coincidence of cannabis karma here: San Rafael — where the Waldos originally coined “4:20” — also connects the group to the Grateful Dead. Nearby San Francisco and Oakland were the epicenter of the hippie movement of the 1960s in California. While it's unclear precisely how the band got wind of the 420 idea, they fully embraced it. And when the party broke up in the 1970s, the Dead and their loyal followers spread out across California and the West Coast, taking the cult of 420 with them.
What’s especially wild is that, by the time Deadheads were popularizing the legend of the 420 holiday, the story had already taken on all kinds of twists and turns.
Steven Bloom, who worked as a reporter for High Times, told the Huffington Post that the first time he stumbled on the phrase was at a Grateful Dead concert. One of the Deadheads handed him a flyer with a cryptic message:
We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.
The message read almost like the treasure map the Waldos had gotten — a secret message to an unknown destination. Indeed, as fate would have it, Marin County’s hills, the destination in the flyer, are right next door to San Rafael High School, where the Waldos’ 420 tradition began. At that point, the story of weed’s biggest day had come full circle.
The Once And Future Code
Bloom had no idea what “420-ing” meant. But when he checked the other side of the flyer, he found a backstory claiming to have all the answers. The flyer claimed that the police invented "420" as code for when people were smoking marijuana. It would go something like, “Roger that, we’ve got a 420 over at San Rafael High School."
According to the flyer, Deadheads decided to take a jab at the cops and use 420 as their own lingo whenever they wanted to smoke. However, the flyer did correctly state that 420 began in San Rafael in the 70s. So somehow the story of the Waldos had been distorted. But regardless of accuracy, 420 had already become an official part of the stoner lexicon, a signal for rallying your buds to smoke some bud.
Of course, the Waldos had perfected the use of the signal long before it became popular. “It was almost telepathic,” recalled one of the Waldos in an interview with the Huffington Post in 2009. Steve Capper, who was 57 at the time of the interview, says that with just a slight change of inflection or tone, or even with no cue at all, it was possible to tell what a “420?” meant. It could mean, “Want to smoke?” “Have any weed?” or “Are you high right now?” According to Capper, teachers and parents were utterly oblivious to what 420 meant.
Not So Secret Anymore
Capper and the other Waldos told HuffPost that it’s still strange for them to see how wide their secret phrase has reached — 420 is hardly a secret today. Virtually everyone knows that 420 has something to do with cannabis, even if they don’t know the history.
References to 420 abound in media and popular culture. They have for decades. From clocks in certain movies and TV shows always set at 4:20 (the most famous being Pulp Fiction) to a Price Is Right contestant always bidding $420. Even the name of California’s 2003 legal medical marijuana law (SB 420) was a reference.
Of course, we can blame High Times for totally letting the nugs out of the bag when their feature a couple of decades back on the history of 420 took the story and the code word global. Virtually overnight, High Times took a secret known more or less only by the Grateful Dead underground and made it internationally famous. It wasn’t long before everyone involved in cannabis culture embraced 420. Even today, the country’s biggest hemp and cannabis festivals still run through the month of April, culminating on 4/20.
The holiday also inspires creative activism and protest. For example, a cannabis activist in London kicked off the 420 season by opening a cannabis pop-up shop in protest of the country’s anti-weed laws.
The Cult Following Of 420
Today the Waldos are blown away at the impact they’ve had on cannabis culture. Many of the Waldos keep a treasure trove of high school memorabilia — and precious proof of the truth of their story — safely locked in a San Fransisco bank vault.
Yet, for better or worse, none of the Waldos ever made any money off of the phrase they originated. But there are plans in the works to create a documentary about the history of 420 and the part the Waldos and the Grateful Dead subculture played in making it an internationally recognized sign for cannabis. They also want to publish a dictionary of the rest of their secret slang, hoping another phrase might take off that they can capitalize on.
Today, 420 enjoys massive popularity along with a dedicated following. With legalization spreading across the United States, April cannabis festivals are more numerous and popular than ever. In fact, many of the biggest events have become so large they engulf entire communities.
For the Waldos, 420 was a signal for coming together and enjoying cannabis — and it’s exactly that spirit that sustains the 4/20 holiday more than 40 years later.
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(Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity and would like to remind its readers that marijuana usage continues to be an offense under Federal Law, regardless of state marijuana laws. To learn more, click here.)