420, 4:20, or 4/20 (pronounced four-twenty) is cannabis culture slang for marijuana and hashish consumption, especially smoking around the time 4:20 p.m., and also refers to cannabis-oriented celebrations that take place annually on April 20 (which is 4/20 in U.S. form).
Both marijuana smokers and non-smokers recognize April 20 or 4/20 as a national holiday for cannabis culture, but few actually know how the date got chosen.
Some say “420” is code among police officers for “marijuana smoking in progress.” Some note 4/20 is also Adolf Hitler’s birthday. And some go as far as to cite Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” because 12 multiplied by 35 equals 420.
But, to put it bluntly, those rumors of the history behind how April 20, and 4/20, got associated with marijuana are false.
The most credible story traces 4/20 to Marin County, Calif. In 1971, five students at San Rafael High School would meet at 4:20 p.m. by the campus’ statue of chemist Louis Pasteur to partake. They chose that specific time because extracurricular activities had usually ended by then. This group — Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich — became known as the “Waldos” because they met at a wall. They would say “420” to each other as code for marijuana.
High School as their meeting place, and 4:20 pm as their meeting time. The Waldos referred to this plan with the phrase “4:20 Louis”. After several failed attempts to find the crop, the group eventually shortened their phrase to “4:20”, which ultimately evolved into a code-word the teens used to refer to consuming cannabis.
Steven Hager of High Times popularized the story of the Waldos. The first High Times mention of 4:20 smoking and a 4/20 holiday appeared in May 1991, and the connection to the Waldos appeared in December 1998. Hager attributed the early spread of the phrase to Grateful Dead followers —after “Waldo” Reddix became a roadie for the Grateful Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh —and called for 4:20 pm to be the socially accepted time of the day to consume cannabis.
International day for cannabis-related protests and events
April 20 has become an international counterculture holiday, where people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. Many such events have a political nature to them, advocating the liberalization and legalization of cannabis. Vivian McPeak, a founder of Seattle’s Hempfest states that 4/20 is “half celebration and half call to action”. Paul Birch calls it a global movement and suggests that one cannot stop events like these.
On that day many marijuana users protest in civil disobedience by gathering in public to smoke at 4:20 pm.
As marijuana continues to be decriminalized and legalized around the world, Steve DeAngelo, cannabis activist and founder of California’s Harborside Health Center, notes that “even if our activist work were complete, 420 morphs from a statement of conscience to a celebration of acceptance, a celebration of victory, a celebration of our amazing connection with this plant” and that he thinks that “it will always be worthy of celebration”.
Legislation and other government recognition
In 2003, California Senate Bill 420 was introduced to regulate medical marijuana use, in deliberate reference to the status of 420 in marijuana culture. An unsuccessful 2010 bill to legalize cannabis in Guam was called Bill 420. A North Dakota bill to legalize cannabis was HB 1420, introduced in January 2021.
The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act (which if enacted would decriminalize and deschedule cannabis in the United States) was announced by Senator and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) on April 20, 2018. On January 9, 2019, H.R. 420 was introduced into the 116th Congress by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), named the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which is designed to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and return regulation to the states.
4/20 is becoming a commercial event
Originally 4/20 was a counterculture holiday to protest, at least in part, the social and legal stigmas against marijuana. Marijuana legalization undercuts that purpose: As big businesses and corporations begin to grow, sell, and market pot, marijuana is losing its status as a counterculture symbol — and that, Humphreys speculated, could bring the end of the traditional, countercultural 4/20.
“If a corporate marijuana industry adopts 4/20, it would still be a celebrated event, but not with the same countercultural meaning,” Humphreys said. “People celebrated Christmas long before it became an occasion for an orgy of gift-buying and materialist consumption, but the meaning of the holiday for most people was different then than it is now.”
Companies such as Invest in Cannabis now admit they’re already leveraging the holiday as another opportunity to promote the industry and its products — much like beer and other alcohol companies now do with St. Patrick’s Day.
“The media is covering 4/20 as a consumer interest story,” Miller of Invest in Cannabis said. “But some portion of the media is covering 4/20 as a call to arms for the industry — so [in 2015] there are multiple competitive business conferences that are happening in Denver, the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and Las Vegas.”
The pot industry has also gotten directly involved in 4/20 events. The Cannabis Cup, for example, has become a major event at a select city’s 4/20 rally, where hundreds of vendors show off their finest marijuana products to tens of thousands of attendees. The event has steadily grown over the years, featuring big concerts from notable musicians like Snoop Dogg, Soja, and 2 Chainz, as well as a wide collection of marijuana businesses as sponsors.
The Cannabis Cup is only one of many events, which also include comedy shows (like Cheech and Chong), marijuana-friendly speed dating, and trade shows for glass pipes and bongs, offering businesses and celebrities various opportunities to push their products and brands.
Some people don’t attend the public festivities at all, choosing instead to stay home and enjoy a joint (or more) with their friends. For them, 4/20 likely remains a more casual affair void of big sponsorships and marketing.