If you like beer, it’s always five o’clock somewhere. But, if you like pot, your watch is forever set at 4:20. A mainstay of marijuana lore, 420 is one of the most widely used, and widely known, euphemisms for smoking up. But where did this come from? Why 4:20 and not, say, half past six?

The Myths of 420

Before we look at 420’s alleged origins, let’s look at where it didn’t come from.

Per LA Weekly, some of the most circulated misconceptions about 420 include:

It’s the date Bob Marley died: Bob Marley 420 loreBob Marley actually died on May 11, 1980 (and he was born in February). Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, did die on April 20th, which might be applicable if everyone got together at twenty past four to drink vials of blood.

It’s Adolph Hitler’s birthday: April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, but that’s coincidental: pot has nothing to do with the psychopaths of history.

There’s 420 chemical compounds in cannabis: Close, but no cigar (or joint). The National Institutes of Health state that there are more than 400 chemicals in the cannabis plant. However, they don’t give the exact number of 420. Other sources state that cannabis contains around 350 chemicals.

The number on the House Bill to legalize weed is 420: The 420 term was minted well before any talk to legalize marijuana. But, California Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003, established medical marijuana laws for the Golden State. No one has come forward to admit that the bill’s number was more than a coincidence.

4:20 is “tea time” in Holland: Somewhere, someone has incorporated cannabis into their afternoon delight, but it’s not the norm: tea time is usually about tea leaves and not cannabis ones. It’s quite the affair, though: Dutch high tea ranges from a pot of tea with some chocolate bars to towers of food including cupcakes, sandwiches, muffins, scones, brownies, and a whole lot of other things that might leave you licking this computer screen right now.

It’s Police Code for Marijuana: 420 is not a universal police code for marijuana or marijuana related crimes. It is a valid police code in some jurisdictions: in Las Vegas, it’s the code for homicide.

April 20th is the best time to plant weed: The best time to plant weed depends on where you live, your method of growing, and the strain. You may find yourself under circumstances where April is indeed the best month to plant pot, but it’s rather strange to pare it down to a one-day window.

420 is from a Bob Dylan song: In Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35,” he repeatedly sings, “Everybody must get stoned!” And 12 times 35 is 420. But this myth doesn’t appear to have much legitimacy. And yet, somewhere, mathematicians are smoking up and smiling.

The Real Origins of Toke Time

The true origins of 420, according to the Huffington Post, have nothing to do with the above and more to do with a group of San Rafael High School friends who called themselves the Waldos. Their story is as follows:

In fall of 1971, they heard about a service member from the Coast Guard who had planted weed near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. They also heard that he was unable to tend to it. The Waldos got a map and decided to go on a “treasure” hunt. They agreed to meet at the statute of Louis Pasteur outside their school at 4:20 to set off on this hunt. In order to remind each other, they’d utter “4:20 Louis” in the hallways (the “Louis” was dropped at some point).

Their hunt was futile at first, but they kept meeting at 4:20 and seeking the abandoned crop

They did it for weeks and the futility continued: they never found the plants. But the term they’d used to remind each other of their plans turned into a code for marijuana. Instead of asking each other if they wanted to go out back and smoke, they’d simply say, “420?” And their teachers and parents were none the wiser.

Enter the Grateful Dead

One of the Waldos had a father who took care of real estate for the Grateful Dead and a brother who managed their sideband. He was also friends with the bassist. In hanging out with the Dead, members of the grateful dead 420Waldos used the term and it spread throughout the community. It eventually went global with the help of a journalist.

High Times picked up the story of 420 years later in 1991, but published its origins with errors. Originally, the myth of the police code was included. But this deviation didn’t matter; the magazine helped propel the term into the mainstream.

Soon after, High Times purchased the web domain 420.com

The Waldos never made any money off of their term, but they found success elsewhere: two work at a lending institution, one heads marketing at a Napa Valley winery, one is in printing and graphics, and one works for a roofing and gutter company. They stay in touch with each other, too.

420, Today

Here and now, 420 is fully immersed in cannabis culture: people get together on April 20th at 4:20 for massive smoke-outs, people use it to choose their roommates on places like Craigslist (420 friendly, only), people steal road signs that feature the number, and it’s referenced in a variety of movies, books, websites, and songs. And, of course, potheads use it as part of their everyday vernacular.

While it might seem crazy that the term took off as quickly as it did, it’s not impossible to believe. If the Richard Gere/gerbil rumor from the 1980s taught us one lesson, it’s that anything has the potential to spread like wildfire.

Jenn Keeler

About the author: Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.