What Is The Meaning Of 420? How Did It Start?

Pop-culture references related to the origins of 420 and its myths.

Although 420 is a well-known term commonly used to refer to weed, its true beginnings are often unknown. What is the meaning of 420 and where did it come from? Let’s take a look at how the origin of 420 evolved over time to become the widely used pop-culture term we are familiar with today.

The Historical Origins of 420

According to an interview published by the Huffington Post, 420 began with a group of San Rafael High School friends who called themselves the Waldos. Here is their story:

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

They did this for weeks without success. Although they never found the marijuana plants, the term they’d used to remind each other of the hunt lives on. 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.

The Grateful Dead’s Contribution to 420

You’re probably wondering how the term 420 went from the Waldo’s inside joke, to being one of the most widely used marijuana terms in pop culture. To answer that, we must rewind and take a look at an unlikely source – an influential 1960’s rock band, The Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead performing live on stage

 

One of the Waldos had a father who took care of real estate for the Grateful Dead and a brother who managed their sideband. When hanging out with the band, members of the Waldos used the term and it spread throughout the community.

High Times picked up the story of 420 years later in 1991, which helped to propel the term into the mainstream. High Times eventually bought the web domain 420.com, and the legacy continued.

The Waldos never made any money off of their term, but they found success elsewhere: two work at a lending institution, one leads 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.

The Myths of 420

Now that we have explored the origins of 420, let’s look at where it didn’t come from. Here are some of the most circulated misconceptions about the history of 420:

Bob Marley performing live on stage.

Myth 1. It’s the date Bob Marley died

 Bob Marley actually died on May 11, 1981 (he was born February 6, 1945.) Although the date 4/20 is not directly tied to Bob Marley, Marley and his music have become an international symbol for love, peace, and weed. Which means when April 20th rolls around, Bob Marley and marijuana will be celebrated hand-in-hand.

Myth 2. It’s Adolf Hitler’s birthday

April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, but this is simply coincidental. There is no source that legitimizes a connection between 420 as a cultural term, and Hitler’s date of birth.

Myth 3. 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.

Myth 4. The number on the House Bill to legalize weed is 420

Part of this myth is accurate: the California Senate Bill 420 would no longer classify marijuana as a controlled substance, and would instead regulate marijuana like alcohol. However, the bill was passed in 2003 and 420 as a pop-culture term was minted well before any talk of legalizing marijuana. As mentioned above, articles were being published about the term as early as 1991.

Myth 5. 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, for example, it’s the code for homicide.

Myth 6. 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 circumstances where April is indeed the best month to plant pot, but it’s not accurate to pin it down to a one-day window. Luckily, we have more articles about how to grow a plant in your home and when to plant and harvest cannabis plants if you would like more information.

Myth 7. 420 is from a Bob Dylan song

In Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35,” he repeatedly sings, “Everybody must get stoned!” It is true that 12 multiplied by 35 is 420. However, there is a lack of information to either confirm or deny that this is the official origin of 420. Time magazine claims this origin as completely false.

Someone's hands rolling up a marijuana joint.

420, Today

Here and now, 420 is fully immersed in cannabis culture. It is referenced in a variety of movies, books, websites, and songs. People get together on April 20th at 4:20 for massive smoke-outs, even going so far as to steal road signs that feature the number. This just goes to show, anything has the potential to spread like wildfire and become part of our everyday vernacular.

What Is The Meaning Of 420? How Did It Start? was last modified: by
Jenn Keeler
About Jenn Keeler
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.