420 day is coming up! Yes, it’s the day many Americans get together to celebrate a plant that is still somehow illegal in the US: cannabis. As the de facto world holiday for cannabis, April 20 is a welcome reason to celebrate.
Fans of Cannabis sativa unite each April 20th to celebrate their favorite plant. There are marches, festivals, protests, parties, smoke-ins, smoke-outs—just about anything you can think of, across the country. And really, today, around the world.
But as the march toward cannabis legalization continues, the way the day feels and looks is changing. 420 festivities are becoming more commercialized—and much bigger. What was once mostly a counterculture celebration of mostly hippies and those who were fighting corporate greed now probably has a corporate sponsor, in an interesting twist.
This is in part due to the influence of big business, which has made 420 a corporate tradition. Some brands such as Totino’s and T-Mobile merely try to take advantage of stereotypes about cannabis users in their ads. Other brands such as Ben & Jerry’s have done a bit more to give back to the community.
So let’s take a look at the history of 420 and how it has changed up until today.
The Origin of 420 Day
Fans of the cannabis plant and The Man have all done their speculating about how 420 day started, but most stories you hear are wrong. Some people believe that April 20th must be a famous cannabis lover’s birthday or the anniversary of their death—but there’s no evidence to support that. Others think that “420” is akin to a “187” police penal code shorthand, but it’s not (although that’s definitely a fun, tough idea).
Some have theorized that there are 420 active chemicals in cannabis. But not only are there nearly 500 such components, it seems unlikely that people using cannabis casually in the 1970s would have come up with the knowledge spontaneously.
Here’s a better theory: a short story from 1939 called “In the Walls of Eryx” by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling. It mentions plants that trigger “mirages” and seem to get the narrator high—and, based on the story, this happens at around 4:20 by his watch.
We’ll credit the Lovecraft story partly in that it could be a connection between cannabis and culture. But it’s not the origins of how we all came to use this expression.
Some people even credit the Bob Dylan song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” with creating the term, but coming to this conclusion involves the numbers in the titles and math, and…draw your own conclusions.
[And no, there’s no connection to Hitler’s birthday.]
The True Story of 420 Day
According to High Times Magazine, The Huffington Post, and Steve Capper and Dave Reddix, two of the people themselves, this cannabis uber holiday originated with The Waldos in San Francisco, California in the fall of 1971. This group of pot-smoking San Rafael high school students nicknamed the Waldos had inherited a treasure map from a friend. The map was drawn by the brother of the friend who was a Coast Guard cadet, and it supposedly showed where he had “hidden” some cannabis.
The cadet was stationed at the Point Reyes Lighthouse nearby in Oakland. For years, close to the outpost, he had been using remote federal land to grow cannabis. Eventually he started to fear that he’d get caught, so he drew the map. He told the Waldos if they found the pot, they could harvest and keep it.
More than once, the Waldos met with the treasure map at 4:20 pm under a statue of Louis Pasteur and tried to solve the mystery. Sadly, countless weekly “Waldo Safaris” in a cloud of cannabis smoke failed, and the crop was never found—at least by them. But the reminder of the time and place lived on in the term, “420 Louis,” and eventually just 420 as people got used to the meeting spot.
Over time, 420 just came to signify cannabis—but still only to their in-crowd. Authority figures like parents and teachers didn’t know what they meant by 420, but they understood each other.
This spread far and wide because The Waldos were closely connected to The Grateful Dead. The band was based blocks away from the high school The Waldos attended in the Marin County hills then, and they had multiple personal connections to the dead including one who worked as a roadie and a link to bassist Phil Lesh.
Of course, Grateful Dead fans were fans of smoke sessions, and for the next 20 years or so, the band toured in front of huge crowds of deadheads nonstop. Furthermore, after Steve Bloom wrote about the term in High Times, its use spread even more. Code words like 420 were an ideal way for cannabis users to form a culture and avoid detection despite draconian laws and heavy enforcement.
Ways to Celebrate 420
So, what do you do with this information now that you know the story?
Back in the day in the 1970s, 4/20 was definitively part of the American counterculture movement. This smaller cultural sub-current in the US engaged in many forms of protest, and cannabis culture was part of that. Alongside rallies against corporate greed and overseas aggression, cannabis became a powerful symbol.
Today, what 4/20 means varies individually. Lots of people love the holiday as a chance to smoke pot, get high and have a great time with lots of other people doing basically the same thing. Especially if you’re in a place like Denver, Colorado or New York, New York, you’ll get plenty of chances at huge, well-run 420 festivals—at least in most years.
But others see 420 as a time to focus on legalization—whether it’s pushing for it or celebrating legislative victories. Medical marijuana patients and advocates for legal change want to see more engaged action on 420.
And of course, good luck escaping the actual cannabis industry on 420.
What does it mean to you personally? Here are some ideas:
Learn Cannabis Etiquette
Hey, if you’ve gotten this far you have enough interest in cannabis to at least have some basic good manners! Don’t be caught unawares trying to throw a dinner party or visiting a dispensary for the first time. Learn about cannabis culture and the social etiquette that surrounds it. One way to do that is by reading The Art of Marijuana Etiquette: A Sophisticated Guide to the High Life.
Watch a Cannabis Film or Documentary
There are so many classic stoner movies to enjoy on 420. Have you seen the classics? Fast Times at Ridgemont High? The Big Lebowski? Get on it, man. Or play to your intellectual side and watch a cannabis documentary, such as The Culture High, The Grass is Greener, or The Legend of 420. Or answer an urban legend for yourself and watch Pulp Fiction to see if all of the clocks and watches are really set to 4:20!
Make Some Edibles
No, we’re not necessarily talking about gummies—although yes you can, if that’s your jam. But there are literally dozens of cannabis cookbooks out there these days, not to mention multiple cannabis-infusing devices on the market if you don’t want to go the old-school par-boiling route.
Get Into a Cannabis Podcast
There are so many awesome cannabis podcasts out there! Try “Great Moments in Weed History,” “CannaInsider,” or “Weed + Grub,” depending on your interests.
Try Something New
In honor of 420, why not try something new? New strains, new cannabinoids like delta-8 THC, delta-10 THC, and products that lead with minor cannabinoids such as CBN can make for some totally new, yet still very cannabis, experiences.
Final Thoughts on the History of 420
We hope you’ve enjoyed our take on the history of 420. The holiday is evolving with our culture, so now is the time to light up and create new traditions and get in on shaping what it looks like in the future.