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Why Is 4/20 National Weed Day?

Why Is 4/20 National Weed Day?

Maybe it’s the vestiges of DARE-influenced prejudice in us, but we weren’t expecting there to be actual reliable sources on the history of 420. We assumed we’d be gathering speculative testimonials from weird-colored HTML websites written in the mid to late 90s. Or standard “haha 420 blaze it” internet speak. Imagine how surprised (and relieved) we were to find that 420 has actual documentation behind it and the story is a surprisingly innocent one about friendship, appreciation for music, and the building of an inclusive global community.


How Did 4/20 Become National Weed Day?

When you hear people talking about the inspiration for 420, you inevitably hear people talking about police codes for marijuana, Bob Dylan songs, Hitler’s birthday, or even the wildly incorrect Bob Marley’s birthday or death day (February 6 and May 11, respectively). In reality, 420’s inspiration sounds far less like a conspiracy theory and far more mundane.

Back in the 1970s, five friends from San Rafael High School in California hung out and smoked weed together, around 4:20 in the afternoon. These friends – Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich – were called the Waldos because they hung out by a wall. It isn’t known if they gave themselves the nickname or if someone else did. What we do know is teenagers have always been bad at giving things nicknames. For a few years, 420 was their rallying call for their extracurricular meetings, 4:20 being when they could meet after their more mainstream, athletic activities.

It also seems that before cell phones, teenagers couldn’t be friends without going on random treasure hunts, at least judging from the various coming-of-age movies we’ve seen. The Waldos were no different. In 1971, they heard about a member of the Coast Guard who’d cultivated some cannabis in the nearby Point Reyes Forest. As the story goes, the Waldos received a map from the Coast Guard guy too, so for some indeterminate amount of time, their 4:20 meetings had them out searching for free pot. As far as we can tell, they never found it. The real treasure, of course, is the friends they found along the way. As well as establishing the enduring use of 420 to talk about marijuana.


How Did 420 Become So Popular?

The weed holiday of 420 spreading out of a high school in California has simultaneously the unlikeliest and most obvious ally possible: The Grateful Dead. For starters, The Grateful Dead was based in Marin County, California, only blocks away from San Rafael High School, giving them the basic convenience of proximity. Closer than that, two of the Waldos–Mark Gravitch and Dave Reddix–had connections to the band. Gravitch’s father was a real estate manager and Reddix’s brother, Patrick, managed a Grateful Dead sideband and was friends with Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead bassist.

Patrick got Dave a job as a roadie for one summer and they used their weed code the whole time they worked there. That meant Grateful Dead members and crewmen were all smoking a ton of weed, saying 420 more often than not as they were passing joints around. You don’t have to know much about The Grateful Dead beyond their prolificity in the cannabis community to assume people outside the band started adopting the phrase for themselves.

From there, the phrase passed into rumor and urban myth. People forgot exactly where they first heard it, they just knew what the code meant. Its origin was so obscured, in fact, that when 420 showed up in Steve Bloom’s story in High Times in 1991, the information was plain wrong. Bloom had been handed a flyer that got the San Rafael location right but said 420 was a co-opted police code for marijuana smoking in progress. Huffington Post set the record straight in 2010 with an interview with two of the original Waldos, Steve and Dave, along with Dave’s older brother. Some of the damage was corrected, but as we said at the beginning, there’s still a lot of misinformation floating around out there.


How 420 Is Celebrated Today

Beyond the absolute deluge of 420 jokes online and in day-to-day spoken references, 420 has permeated deep into pop culture. Impromptu weed-smoking events pop up every year on the day, plenty of them too big for local law enforcement to have any hope of dispelling through reasonable tactics. There are global festivals, conventions, concerts, and political rallies that keep it reasonably professional and are hammering away at the stigma still holding on to cannabis.

In the broader culture, the number pops up all the time. Some of the clocks in Pulp Fiction are set to 4:20. The California bill that legalized medical marijuana in 2003 was SB 420 (no one knows who did that). Contestants on The Price is Right have only bid versions of 420. Cookbooks, histories, and documentaries about cannabis all put 420 in their titles. 420 has become shorthand for all things pertaining to weed. It’s gone from a quiet code for friends in the know to an international cultural phenomenon. All because a couple of kids from California liked to get high after school.

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