The Story Behind Every Pothead’s Favorite Number: 420
There are far more myths surrounding April 20, or, as it’s written numerically, 4.20, than there are facts.
But here’s one incontrovertible statement about the date: A lot of people are going to be supremely stoned.
Smoking pot on 4.20 (preferably at 4:20) has become the marijuana community’s version of Oktoberfest — a secular holiday dedicated to the consumption of a mild intoxicant.
But why was this date anointed Intergalactic Puff-Puff-Pass Day? Where did the tradition start? And how did the stoner community manage to remember a specific number long enough for it to turn into a tradition?
The origin of 420 has been as thoroughly vetted as such a thing can be.
The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, High Times, the 420 Times and the skeptical folks at Snopes.com have all satisfied their fact-checking departments that the tradition began with a group of teens known as the Waldos who grew up in Marin County, California. (Delightfully, they were called “the Waldos” because they liked to hang out beside a wall near San Rafael High School.)
The Waldos, among them Mark Gravitch, Dave Reddix and Steve Capper, initially attempted to conceal their identities to protect their adult lives and careers.
They used to employ Ramones-style code names like Waldo Dave, Waldo Steve and Waldo Mark, but these days they’re embracing their roles in pot history.
They have produced and displayed a 420 flag that dates back to the 1970s and have also submitted as evidence postmarked letters from the same era that use the number as a code for marijuana.
Why has the group been forced to authenticate their status as the original users of 420? Because the rumors surrounding the number have proven as sticky as the kindest hydro, bro.
Here are just some of the awesome things that are not true about 420:
- 420 is not police code for marijuana violations.
- 420 is not the number of active chemical compounds in marijuana. (It’s 315.)
- 420 is Adolf Hitler’s birthday, but that’s not where the tradition comes from.
- 420 is what you get if you multiply 12 by 35, the numbers from the title of the Bob Dylan song “Rainy Day Woman no. 12 and no. 35.” That song does contain the refrain “everybody must get stoned.” But that is not why 420 became the pothead’s favorite number.
The actual reason the five original Waldos used the number is because 4:20 was the time they would meet each day to go search for a legendary lost marijuana crop near the Point Reyes Coast Guard Station.
According the Waldos, in 1971 they were your typical weed-lovin’ Cali high school students. They heard that some dude from the Coast Guard had been forced to abandon a plot of marijuana plants in Point Reyes and decided to find the fabled field.
They agreed to meet at a statue of French microbiologist Louis Pasteur at 4:20PM, then they would smoke up and stumble around the wilds of Point Reyes searching.
Despite looking for several weeks, they never uncovered the tantalizing supply of free dope, but they did coin a code they could use to conceal their drug use from their parents and teachers.
It’s likely 420 would have died on the vine except that Waldo Dave’s older brother was a friend of Phil Lesh, bassist for the Grateful Dead.
Learning the phrase from the patient zero Waldos group, Lesh and the Dead then co-opted the term and spent the next 35 years touring the globe, smoking weed and passively popularizing the association between the number 420 and the consumption of pot.
“420” Enters Pop Culture
Once in the hands of the whimsical and subversive stoner community — which has always adored semi-secret ways to communicate their pot affection — the number 420 began to find its way into all kinds of hilarious places.
All the clocks in the movie Pulp Fiction are set to 4:20, for example, and a piece of medical marijuana legislation in California was called State Bill 420.
Evan Goding, a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo lookalike, got his 14 minutes and 20 seconds of fame when he bid either $420 or $1,420 on every item during an appearance on the “Price is Right.” (Goding’s strategy almost netted him some sweet karaoke equipment until a neighboring contestant snaked him with a bid of $421.)
Denver Interstate mile marker 420 was also stolen so frequently it was recently replaced with the unconventional mile marker 419.99.
The popularity of 420 exploded when the advent of the internet slashed communication lag to an all-time minimum.
This, combined with the ever-decreasing illegality of marijuana, resulted in a public that has embraced 420 like never before.
These days there are smoke outs and smoke ins held on 4.20, “420-friendly” roommate listings on Craigslist and a slate of 4.20 events planned and publicized in cities from Denver to Atlanta to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
It may have taken almost half a century, but 420 has now made the long strange trip from a wall in Marin County to a firm place in weed lore.
Now if its originators could only find that damn pot field in Point Reyes…