top of page

The Wild Story Behind 4/20

The Wild Story Behind 4/20

By Jeanie Goulde McElhone

April 20th has become a beloved holiday for stoners everywhere. As people continue to support this incredible holiday, do they know its historical significance? Though the support for marijuana legalization continues to grow, the drug is still illegal on a federal level in the United States. This day means different things for different people. Some choose to spend it by pushing for marijuana legislation, while others just smoke and have a fun time. Regardless of how you choose to celebrate this holiday, the history behind it remains significant.

Many say the holiday came to be because of a ritual started by a group of high school students in the 1970s, in Marin County, California, who called themselves “The Waldos”. According to an article, written for Vox by German Lopez, the teenagers smoked marijuana every day at 4:20 pm. This ritual quickly spread throughout and was soon enough used as a code for the smoking of marijuana. This also allowed teenagers to discuss pot without getting caught. It spread internationally thanks to a band, named The Grateful Dead. An article from, by Brynn Holland, reports that some of the Waldos had connections to the band, as they would spend time together backstage and say “Hey 420” when passing the joint. News of this new code spread throughout the Deadhead community.

Steven Bloom, a reporter for “High Times”, first heard “420” during Christmas week at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California, in 1990. This happened when a Deadhead, a Grateful Dead fan, handed him a flyer that said, “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais”. Once “High Times” latched on to the story, the magazine helped launch the word, starting a cult phenomenon across the globe (Holland).

As this origin story is the most widely believed, it is the story that has the most supportive evidence. There was also a common belief that 420 was the California police code for marijuana, however there is no evidence to support these claims (Lopez). It could also be because there are 420 active chemicals in marijuana. Personally, the story about those ragtag high schoolers and Deadheads is the coolest one in my book.

While, in theory, this all sounds fun and light, there is some deeper symbolism behind the use of 420. As more states move towards weed legalization, there are twenty-one states who have legalized recreational marijuana use. There has been a significant shift in perspectives surrounding 420 and the use of marijuana.

Marijuana was criminalized in the United States in the 1930s. Of course, that did not prevent its popularity. Continuing into the 1960s, cannabis became associated with the counterculture movement. During the 1970s, 4/20 was still of a smaller counterculture movement that embraced marijuana as a symbol to protest problems in the United States, like the Vietnam War. American troops stationed in Vietnam would bring marijuana back to the United States, helping it further gain popularity. A day that was meant to be one of celebrations that called to end prohibition has now become a money grab for businesses everywhere.

With revenue increasing at dispensaries at the beginning of the week of four-twenty, access to marijuana has become easier and safer. What a classic corporate America move (Lopez). However, high commercialization could be a sign of success in legalization movements. Some legalization campaigns even adopted the tagline “regulate marijuana like alcohol”. Federal legalization is something many are still fighting for that will hopefully be passed soon. Though concerns have been shown in relation to its easy access, it has been proven that further regulating the drug provides for a safer environment in the end. It is truly a win-win situation!

So, while you may be lighting one up this 4/20, remember those who came before us and smoke that tumbleweed!

bottom of page