April 20 is widely recognized as the national holiday for cannabis, a day for celebratory toking. But while 420’s connection to weed is common knowledge, the reason for it is a little hazier.
Some common but incorrect beliefs include 420 originating from a police code for “Marijuana Smoking in Progress,” the number of active chemicals in cannabis, a refrain from a Bob Dylan song, and even Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
In truth, 420 can be sourced back to a group of Californian teens in the early 70s, nicknamed “The Waldos.” History Stories reports that this group of 5 used to meet after practice at 4:20 to toke up and search for a rumored free cannabis crop.
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.”
Although they never found the free weed, the 420 meme was born.
The reason for the meme’s spread is their connection to the The Grateful Dead through one of their fathers, who managed the Dead’s real estate. One of the Waldos, Steve, explained to the the Huffington Post, “There was a place called Winterland and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community."
As it spread, the exact origin of it became lost. Phil Lesh admits to not even remembering when the first time he heard it was.
Some call 420 the original meme because of how ubiquitous it's become. There's hardly anyone, whether they get high or not, that doesn't associate 420 with weed. And while the police code is a myth, there is a California State Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana that is, of course, in reference to the unofficial holiday (making it feel more like an official one).
Thanks to a myth about free herb, a group of teens unwittingly gifted cannabis culture a sense of ceremony and ritual befitting this potent and powerful herb.