420: The Legend Behind the Californian High-Schoolers and How 420 became Globally Recognized Amongst Stoners

420, cannabis, marijuana
Only works in America. 20/4 across the rest of the world…

Each year on this day, 420, 20 April, marijuana enthusiasts all around the world, from Amsterdam to London to California, congregate to celebrate cannabis culture, whether it’s legal or not.

Last year more than a thousand people gathered in London’s Hyde Park to mark 4/20, smoking joints together at the designated time while calling for cannabis to be legalized, and tens of thousands partied peacefully in Denver with hundreds of vendors and free music performances.

420, cannabis, marijuana
420 gathering in Denver, CO. Credit: Canna Magazine

That cannabis is becoming more and more accepted in our culture is not beyond question, but why do we celebrate it on 20th April? What is the truth behind the origins of this day, and what are some of the urban myths?

  • One such urban myth suggested 420 was the penal code in the state of California used by police officers for marijuana use. But according to Snopes.com, the 420 penal code actually refers to “obstructing entry on public land,” and does not refer to marijuana use in any other US state, either.
  • No. It is not the date Bob Marley died (he died on 5/11/81), nor is 4/20 his birthday. It is also not the date that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison died.
  • Another musical link is Bob Dylan, his song, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and its lyric, “Everybody must get stoned.” Multiply 12 by 35 and you get 420. A little tenuous, and Dylan himself has never confirmed any link.
  • Neither LAPD nor NYPD even has a code 420. San Francisco Police have one, but it’s for a “juvenile disturbance.”
  • Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, and April 20 is also the anniversary date of another horrible buzzkill, the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Fortunately, that is definitely not 420’s origin, as references to 420 date back to the 1970s.

So if the above are all garbage, then where did it originate? And how did it spread to everyday use and general pop culture? There is one explanation that seems to have the most credence and is widely accepted by most… it started with some California stoners who wanted to score some free weed.

420, cannabis, marijuana
The Grateful Dead. Credit: Bailiwick Express

In the fall of 1971, harvest time, the Waldos got word of a Coast Guard service member who could no longer tend his plot of marijuana plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. A treasure map in hand, the Waldos decided to pluck some of the free bud.

The Waldos were a group five students from the San Rafael High School; Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich. The guys hung out with the band the Grateful Dead and Reddix ended up as a roadie for them, helping the term catch-on in the 1990’s amongst that Deadhead circle.

The Waldos, who were all athletes, agreed to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside the school at 4:20 pm, after practice, to begin the hunt.

Despite numerous searches, they never found the patch, but the numbers 420 did become a useful code for them to communicate with each other, they would say “420” to each other at some point during the school day as the code to meet for a smoke. 

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20.”

420, cannabis, marijuana
The Grateful Dead flyer from 1990. Credit: Mother Jones

The legend continues that on Dec. 28, 1990, Deadheads in Oakland handed out flyers at a Grateful Dead show in Oakland, CA, inviting people to smoke “420” on April 20 at 4:20 pm. One of these flyers landed in the hands of Steve Bloom, a former reporter for High Times magazine. The publication published the flyer in 1991 and continued to reference the number, and before long those digits became known globally for their association with marijuana.

420, cannabis, marijuana
Fed up with mile marker 420 constantly being stolen, Colorado DOT replaced it with mile marker 419.99. Credit: CDOT

As nobody has come up with any story that pre-dates 1971, the “Waldos” have officially been recognized as the “inventors” of 420. The guys still live in northern California, in Marin County and Sonoma County, and are still good friends.