What is 420?

There’s a pretty hazy history surrounding the origins of the term “420” and there’s a whole lot of misinformation out there. Is it a marijuana holiday? Is it a hemp holiday? In this post, I’ll help you cut through the clutter and get right to the bottom of it.

Part of the problem is that—like so many terms in language—420 has taken on a life of its own. It means lots of different things to lots of different people. And just about everybody who uses the term has his or her own folk etymology to account for where the term came from and what it means to their particular circle of friends.

You’ll hear that 420’s meaning derives from various police or sheriffs’ departments (often citing California locales) as a law enforcement code for “smoking marijuana in progress” or “smoking marijuana in public.” Other tall tales make spindly connections to Adolf Hitler’s birthday (4-20-1889) or any other range of references to popular music of the 1970s like Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead. Still other accounts point to 4:20 being “tea time” in Holland (a province in The Netherlands known for its friendliness to herb), or any other range of references to things with a precise quantity of 420 bits.

In general, most people use the term to mean something like “National Pot Smoking Time.” Lots of students are out of school and home by 4:20pm, and lots of adults are off from work at that time and ready to relax. April 20th every year provides a way to kind of double-down on “420” because you can smoke pot at 4:20pm on 4-20.

According to both the History Channel and the Huffington Post, the original usage had to do with a group of California high schoolers who called themselves “The Waldos.”

Author Brynn Holland for the History Channel writes: “In the fall of 1971, the Waldos learned of a Coast Guard member who had planted a cannabis plant and could no longer tend to the crop. Provided with a treasure map (some say by the plant’s owner himself) supposedly leading to the abandoned product, the group would meet at the Louis Pasteur statue outside their high school at least once a week conduct a search. Their meeting time? 4:20 p.m, after practice (they were all athletes). The Waldos would pile into a car, smoke some pot and scour the nearby Point Reyes Forest for the elusive, free herb. One of the original members of the Waldos, Steve Capper, told the Huffington Post, ‘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.’”

Apparently Capper and the other students never found the botanical treasure, but they did manage to coin a term that let them—and many others—refer to smoking pot without meddling parents and teachers find out what they were talking about.

So while 420 may not be quite as clever as some other folk “holidays” like Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you) or Pi Day (March 14th—or 3.14 for the math nerds), 420 still acts as a quasi-secret, in-on-the-joke reference for marijuana users the world over.

Thanks for taking the time with me today, Happy 420 Day tomorrow(!), and, as always, be well, friends!