What is 420? The History and Significance of a Cannabis Holiday

Across the world, April 20th is a cannabis holiday. Many cannabis enthusiasts, casual users, and bystanders have their own theories on the origin of the annual cannabis celebration, and most Americans have heard some iteration of 420 lore. Was it from a police penal code? A subversive song title from the late 1960’s? A historic birth or death?

No matter where 420 came from, the holiday is celebrated around the world and is one of the biggest dates for cannabis sales, product launches, festivals, events, and parties. Discover the most likely origin story, some more dubious theories, and the enduring cultural effects of 420 as a cannabis holiday. 

The (Likely) History of 420

The most credible story of the start of 420 dates back to 1971 in San Rafael, California—a suburb near San Francisco. A group of five teenagers with the self-applied group name “the Waldos” heard tell of a hidden, untended cannabis operation. Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s book, “Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana,” claims the Waldos (five high schoolers named Dave Reddix, Steve Capper, Mark Gravitch, Jeff Noel, and Larry Schwartz) were made aware of a nearby cannabis crop that was abandoned by a member of Coast Guard. As teens in after school athletics programs, 4:20 was a convenient time to meet. “420 Louie” became the Waldos’ code to meet by a statue of Louis Pasteur to initiate the search. The Waldos met at least once a week to search for the fabled cannabis crop. 

Over time, the Waldos began using the code “420” as a euphemism for smoking cannabis.

Original Waldo Steve Capper said, “We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louie, and we eventually dropped the Louie.”

The Grateful Dead and 420

When searching for the 50-year-old origin of a slang term for a controlled substance, it can devolve into anecdotes. As the rumors go, one of the original five Waldos had an older brother that knew Grateful Dead bassist and cannabis enthusiast Phil Lesh. Allegedly, the Waldos used cannabis with the Grateful Dead, who lived and performed in San Rafael. The band, a noted favorite among the cannabis community since the 1960’s, was said to be instrumental in spreading 420 as a code for cannabis use. 

The Waldos claim it wasn’t until the 1990’s before they realized their code for cannabis was used internationally.

420 Origins: Other Theories

Though the story of the Waldos and their relationship with the Grateful Dead is the likeliest origin story, several other theories remain. Some have been debunked, while others are unverifiable and cannot be disproven. Here are some of the most prevalent 420 theories that remain in the cannabis culture. 

The Bob Dylan Theory

Numerology is popular among the cannabis community, especially among conspiracy-minded fans of music. John Lennon was obsessed with the number nine, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin attributed occult powers with numbers and symbols, and the oddly common classic rock deaths at the age 27 has led commentators to coin the phrase, “27 club.” In a similar numerologist rationale, Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35” led listeners to multiply 12 and 35 to equal 420.

Notably, the refrain of the song is, “Everybody must get stoned.”

The Police Code Theory

A popular theory of the origin of 420 is that it started as a police code for cannabis possession or public use. On the contrary, Snopes reports Section 420 in the California penal code regards the obstruction of entry on public land. Penal codes in other states include 420, but none are related to cannabis use or possession.
The one exception comes from California Senate Bill 420, also known as the Marijuana Marijuana Program Act. By the time this bill was introduced by California governor Gray Davis in 2003, 420 had already been a code word for cannabis use for decades. 

The bill was named after the code, and not the other way around.

The Significance of 420

Before cannabis was celebrated on April 20th, it was a day of activism and protest. Vivian McPeak, the founder of Seattle’s Hempfest, said April 20th is “half celebration and half call to action.” With countless festivals, events, protests, and parties around the world, 420 has become the most important day of the year for cannabis advocates.

420 Deals and Product Launches

In addition to being an important day for advocacy and the cannabis community at large, April 20th is now the biggest cannabis shopping day of the year. The widespread legalization of cannabis as a recreational and medical product has led to a surge in dispensary sales, and cannabis enthusiasts have looked to April 20th as the cannabis equivalent of Black Friday.

Be sure to stay informed on 420 cannabis deals from your local dispensary by submitting your email address in the form at the bottom of this page. You will have the best cannabis deals for 420 delivered directly to your inbox. From cannabis flower to edibles and concentrates, Happy Valley has everything you need to make this year’s 420 a true cannabis celebration.

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