Any good stoner can tell you that the term “420” has, for many decades, been used in reference to good ol’ marijuana—and the act of smoking marijuana in particular. This term, which has, over the years, been adopted by potheads across the globe, is now used in everything from Snoop Dogg’s clever raps to the neon signs of cannabis coffee shops in the Netherlands. It can also be found plastered across a variety of products, from kitschy weed paraphernalia to weed and edible packaging and stoner-friendly clothing.
But while nearly any cannabis user (and perhaps even those who abstain) can tell you what 420 means, not many people know the true origins of the term. For most, this mysterious numeric slogan seemed to appear out of thin air in the 1970s, at a time when cannabis was widely embraced by the hippie and counterculture crowds. And, it has remained a source of confusion in the time since.
Still, there are plenty of vague myths and stories about the supposed origins of 420—a holiday we celebrate not just every day at 4:20, but also one month out of the year. And what month is that, you ask? Well, it’s this one.
In true stoner tradition, the month of April—and the day of April 20th in particular— brings with it tons of cannabis- centric celebrations in honor of the old weed code. There are weed-centric music events, parties, festivals across not just Colorado, but most of the nation—prohibition state or otherwise. And what better way to celebrate the annual festival of marijuana festivities than to take a peek behind the curtain to find out the origins of 420? We can’t think of one.
So, without further ado, here’s what you should know about the myths, stories, and—of course—the one true origin of 420.
Happy 420, friends!
Debunked 420 origin myth #1:
The cop code theory If you ask a stoner about the origins of 420, there’s a solid chance that they’re going to cite a common, but incorrect, myth about how this term originated from a penal code in California. In particular, there is a prevailing belief that 420 was the California police code for marijuana offenses, and stoners simply adopted the code as their term for weed.
But while that myth is especially prevalent, it ain’t true. In fact, there’s absolutely no evidence that supports the idea that 420 has anything to do with weed under California cop codes. In fact, Section 420 of the California penal code refers to obstructing entry on public land—not smoking doobies on the corner with your friends.
And there’s no evidence that 420 originates from any other state’s penal codes, either. There are plenty of penal codes listed for
420 across the nation, but none of them have anything to do with marijuana.
There is, however, a California Senate Bill 420 that relates to the use of medical marijuana—and it’s no coincidence, either.
Back on New Year’s day in 2004, the Governor of California signed into law Senate Bill 420, which regulates marijuana used for medical purposes. But while this bill is related to weed and does make good use of 420, the truth is that this bill originated decades after the term 420 was associated with marijuana.
And, what’s more is that it was chosen because of the existing pop culture connection—not the other way around. In other words, the tail is wagging the dog on this one.
Debunked 420 origin myth #2: The chemical theory
There are a ton of active chemicals in weed, including our favorite cannabinoid, THC, and about 60 other types of cannabinoids, too. And, the copious number of active chemicals in cannabis has, over time, led many a stoner to hypothesize that the term 420 refers to the active number of chemicals in marijuana.
But while this may seem like a good hypothesis, we’re going to burst your stoner bubble and tell you that this is not where the term 420 originated from. And it would have been wholly incorrect if it had, as there are nearly 500 such components in marijuana—or perhaps even more, though the exact number is a source of debate among scientists and the pothead community at large.
Debunked 420 origin myth #3: Curious mirage- plants theory
The supposed origins of 420 aren’t all cop- and chemical-related. One of the more “unique” myths about the origin of 420 is that it comes from a 1939 short story called “In the Walls of Eryx” by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling.
This myth originated due to the story alluding to “curious mirage- plants”—which to be fair, do seem relatively similar to marijuana. And, even more coincidentally, these curious mirage-plants get the story’s narrator higher than high, which happens, according to the narrator’s watch, at 4:20.
Seems like a credible theory, right? Right, but it’s not the actual origin of the term 420. Sorry, book nerds. It just so happens to be a crazy (and fascinating) coincidence that this story revolves around mirage-plants and getting stoned. Maybe they were alluding to magic mushrooms or peyote instead?
Debunked 420 origin myth #4: The death date theory
There’s also a belief among weed fanatics that the origin of 420 is rooted in the fact that April 20th is the date that Jim Morrison,
Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin died. And while this would be a good theory in theory, as each of these epic musicians were known to, err, dabble in drugs (or more), it isn’t the correct origin story. Morrison, Hendrix, and Joplin may be strongly tied to the emerging drug culture of their time, but their deaths have nothing to do with 420 becoming associated with cannabis culture.
In fact, not a single one of them kicked the bucket on April 20th, despite the prevailing belief that they did. Jim Morrison died on July 3rd, Jimmy Hendrix passed away on September 18th, and Janis Joplin (RIP her velvet- voiced soul) died on October 4th.
Not a single April death in the mix.
Debunked 420 origin myth #5: The planting theory
Have you heard the one about how April 20th is the best day of the year to plant your weed? If so, you may be under the impression that 420 originated from this mythical weed planting day. But…you guessed it. It didn’t. As you may have guessed, there is not a singular day in which it’s “best” to plant weed. The entire nation deals with different weather patterns and different seasonality changes, and as such, the best day to plant weed would have a huge variable across the country.
And, that’s not to mention that in most places, growing weed occurs indoors, under the lights, and in a relatively sterile environment. That’s especially true of legitimate grow operations, which have to control the environment to produce the best crops and keep out the nasty contaminants that can get all up in yo’ bud.
So, no. While you may make it a tradition to plant your bud on April 20th, that is not where the term originated from. Sorry, folks.
Debunked 420 origin myth #6: The LSD theory
There’s another theory floating around about the origin of 420—and it stems from a curious place: LSD. According to this theory, the term 420 originated from the day that Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who is known for being the first known person to synthesize, ingest, and learn of the psychedelic effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), first took a deliberate LSD trip. And this trip, according to legend, occurred at—you guessed it—4:20 p.m. on April 19th, 1942.
While Hofmann did indeed take his tirst deliberate LSD trip at 4:20 on this day—and his lab notes back it up—this was not the source of the 420 origins. As with other myths on this list, the timing of Hofmann’s trip is purely coincidental.
And, just to be clear, this date was not Hofmann’s first LSD trip. It was his first intentional trip. The first dose of LSD that Hofmann took was actually on April 16, 1943—a few days prior. And that was an accidental trip.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point here is that Hofmann’s LSD trip or trips have nothing to do with the origins of 420.
So what the heck does 420 stem from, if it doesn’t originate from Jim Morrison’s death, the prime weed planting day, or a Swiss researcher’s LSD trip?
Well, it’s simple. As with most slang terms, the term 420 originated from the mouth of babes. Or, in this case, not babes, per se, but rather four stoner teens who were on a mission to find a clandestine grow—and also needed a way to hide their penchant for pot from mom and pop.
Here. Let us explain.
The one true verified 420 origin story: The California teens and a weed treasure map
Forget all of those other bogus stories about the origins of 420. The reality is that the term 420 can be traced back to a group of five California teens, nicknamed the Waldos, who used to hang out by a wall outside their San Rafael school (hence the nickname). This group—which consisted of Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich—are directly responsible for bringing 420 to the rest of the globe, even if it was by accident.
It all started in the fall of 1971, shortly after the Waldos were told the story of a Coast Guard member who had planted a cannabis plant but could no longer tend to the crop. These weed-loving teens decided to try and find the cannabis plant with the help of a treasure map, which was supposedly procured from the plant’s owner himself.
Eager to find the abandoned plant, the group met up after their athletic practices outside of their high school to try and find the treasure marked on their maps. And, since all five members of the Waldos were athletes, they had to meet at the wall, right next to the Louis Pasteur statue, at precisely 4:20 p.m., when all of their practices were over.
From there, the Waldos would pile into a car and smoke some pot. Once they were a bit toasty, they’d go on their treasure hunt in the nearby Point Reyes Forest in search of the elusive, free herb.
“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis,” Waldos member Steve Capper told the Huffington Post.
They never found the plot—but they had a great time just searching for it.
“We were smoking a lot of weed at the time,” says Dave Reddix or Waldo Dave, now a filmmaker. “Half the fun was just going looking for it.”
Over time, the group continued using the term 420 to avoid getting busted for their cannabis use.
“Back then, we spent every day of our lives worrying about getting busted. Going to buy was a really secret thing,” Waldos member Steve Capper told The San Francisco Chronicle.
And, unsurprisingly, so did friends and acquaintances. This helped the term to spread like wildfire among the California stoner crowds.
The Grateful Dead 420 spread
Things really took off for 420 when the Waldos’ term was adopted by the Grateful Dead a few years later. But how the heck did that happen? How did a group of five teenagers manage to have their slang word for weed adopted by one of the biggest stoner bands to ever exist?
Well, it’s all due to a few handy connections, of course.
At the time, the Waldos had numerous points of connection to the band. For starters, Mark Gravitch’s father managed the
Grateful Dead’s real estate— and Dave Reddix’s older brother, who managed a Dead sideband, was also good friends with
Dead bassist Phil Lesh. As such, the boys had a ton of access to the Grateful Dead members, and were regularly a part of the
Dead shows in some form or fashion.
“There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community,” Capper told the Huffington Post.
And—while that connection was a big boost for 420 on its journey to mainstream—it didn’t end with the Grateful Dead.
High Times catches the 420 fire
The first time Steven Bloom, then a reporter and editor for High Times, heard the phrase 420 was at a 1990 Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California. Prior to the concert, Bloom had been wandering through the congregation of hippies that would gather in anticipation of the show. While on his trek through hippie central, a Deadhead handed Bloom a flyer with a curious phrase.
It read: “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.”
This intrigued Bloom, who started using it in his work on the storied pot magazine—as did the other High Times staff. After the cacophony of stoner reporters and editors latched on to the term, it caused the term 420 to go global—and eventually led to the mainstream adoption of the stoner term.
Where’s the proof?
With so many illicit tales of the origins of 420, it would be silly to assume you believe us on the origins of 420. But you don’t have to take our word for it—the Waldos have proof that they were directly responsible for the word being adopted into mainstream pop culture.
According to numerous reports, the Waldos have a newspaper clipping and other 1970s stoner relics, like their original 420 tie-dyed flag, tucked away in a vault in a San Francisco bank.
In that newspaper clipping, members of the Waldos discuss wanting to just say “420” for his high school graduation speech—proof of the group’s use of this term. It’s also regularly referenced in postmarked letters between the group, which are filled with 420 references.
What’s next for 420?
There has already been a global adoption of the term, at least among cannabis fanatics, and the unofficial 420 holiday has spurred numerous celebrations across the nation. As more states work to legalize marijuana, the term—and the 420 celebrations—will only continue to become more mainstream.
“It’s (420) basically just a celebration of cannabis. It’s mushroomed into our unofficial national holiday,” Dan Skye, an editor at
High Times magazine, told ABC News in 2011.
And to think that it all started with a five-man, weed treasure hunting crew in California. Who knew?