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The Dank History of 420: How Cannabis Culture Was Created

It doesn’t take the mind of a genius (or even an adult) to understand that any story, no matter how small or untrue, can get grossly out of hand when filtered through the right channels. One such tale is the history of 420 (that’s four-twenty, not four hundred and twenty, ya big square), and how an otherwise innocuous integer, came to represent the use of recreational marijuana the world over.

Whether it’s 4:20 PM, the universally accepted time to light up a spliff, or April the 20th, the now ubiquitous combination of three digits is a hotly debated story. We’re here to dispel all the myths and rumours about this magical day, presenting the dank history of 420.

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The Dank History of 420

The history of 420 3

Image: HuffPost

What is the Origin of 420?

There are many myths about the origins of 420 as a concept, and we’ll endeavour to touch on these as they crop up throughout our history lesson. But please know that we have researched this topic through original sources (not Wikipedia) multiple, multiple times (as far-fetched as what you’re about to read maybe). So trust us, bro.

So you ask why 420 is the best time of day to burn one down? This theory has also been researched extensively, with evidence both anecdotal and first-hand taken into account, over a lengthy control time (to ensure, you know, accuracy and stuff). We’ll start by clarifying the first common misconception, no, 420 is not the police radio code for weed. We bring this up first as it’s a frankly stupid theory for one obvious reason; Police radio codes not only differ internationally, they differ from state to state. In fact, 420 is a police radio code in Las Vegas, Nevada, but it’s not for smoking the ‘erb, it’s for homicide. And in case we need to point it out, there’s a stark difference between an unofficial holiday essentially devoted to doing nothing, and straight-up murder.

The waldos history of 420 2

Image: NBC News

The Truth Behind the History of 420

The year was 1971. The place? San Rafael, California (because of course, it happened in ruddy California). Five friends, all students at San Rafael High School, had a very specific ritual: one which would later change the world’s referral to, and, perhaps, attitude towards, the devil’s lettuce.

The young men, Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz and Mark Gravich, would meet on the school grounds each day by a statue of Louis Pasteur, the marvellous French scientist and polymath, at exactly 4:20 PM. A seemingly arbitrary time to get baked? Sure. But this was before WhatsApp groups so people needed to organise themselves well in advance, especially if there were going to be multiple attendees at any gathering. 420 was an understood, concrete, regimented ritual for the boys and one which we can only assume saw a lot of bud getting passed between them.

Like all good gangs of youths, of course, they had a name for themselves. Going by the name ‘The Waldos’ (allegedly because their chosen hang-out spot was a wall outside the school. Personally, we think that they should have been ‘The Pasteurs’, but then, high school gang-naming was never our thing. But this quintet of pubescent stoners began to use the term “420 Louis”, though with different meanings depending on the context.

“It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like, ‘Do you have any?’ or ‘Do I look stoned?’… Parents and teachers wouldn’t know what we were talking about”, said Capper in a 2000 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

The best part of this rather innocent tale, however, concerns a treasure map of spurious origin. The five youngsters had come into possession of a mysterious map, which purportedly showed the way to a huge crop of cannabis that was there for the taking. If it could be located.

Originally planted by local coastguard Gary Newman, who happened to be the brother-in-law of one of the brothers who gave The Waldos their sacred map in the first place, the “X-marks-the-spot” example of criminal cartography was created to cover his tracks from his snoopy colleagues, and he never recovered his stash out of fear of being caught.

The story goes that Newman’s crop of whacky tobaccy is still out there, perhaps waiting for you to find it. Our research certainly doesn’t rule this out.

Phil lesh grateful dead

Image: Thoughts on the Dead

The Grateful Dead Cement the History of 420

So, how did a secret code between five teenagers who just wanted a safe way to get blazed after school balloon into an international phenomenon? Well if it could be properly explained, it would not, by definition, be a phenomenon. The Waldos have a provable link to stoner band The Grateful Dead. Dave Reddix’s brother managed bassist Phil Lesh’s side-projects. Mark Gravich’s father also helped the band find a rehearsal space (where they also performed), and as a result, The Waldos were always automatically on the guest list.

“For a young man around 18 or 19 around these guys, it was pretty overwhelmingly fun… we’d shoot some hoops and get high and listen to the Dead playing and practicing inside this warehouse,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported Reddix as remembering.

It wasn’t long before the members of The Grateful Dead, and indeed their associated acts were using the term 420 to refer to their favoured psychotropic inhalable. This eventually found its way to the (stoner) fans, who quickly cottoned onto the phrase. The rest, as they say in the classics, is history.

The history of 420 4

Image: Rollingstone

Why is 420 a Dank Number?

There are literally 420 reasons why the phrase continues to be passed around today. We’ve covered the history of 420 above but there are many other reasons why it’s such a dank number. Perhaps it was the need for a secret code during a time fraught with anti-drug propaganda (1971, the year 420 was coined, was also the year Richard Nixon began his now-infamous “War on Drugs”). Perhaps it’s a human desire to feel accepted, by whispering “420” to a fellow concertgoer and receiving a dutchie on the left-hand side. Whatever the exact reason for the term’s universal popularity, it’s here to stay.

The number quite obviously lends itself to the time of day when its etymological origins can be found, but it’s also representative of the 20th of April. Yes, Adolf Hitler was indeed born on this date, but this is a mere coincidence, and any conspiracy theorists who try to draw a line between Hitler and the calming, tranquil effects of marijuana have both never smoked the stuff or Googled Adolf Hitler.

With medicinal marijuana and the legalisation of recreational reefer hot-button topics worldwide, politicians are now sensibly weighing in on what seems to be an inevitability for western nations. The 20th of April (not the day Bob Marley died) has become a day of (peaceful) protest for many.

The Grateful Dead

General FAQ

What does 420 mean?

Whether you're a smoker or not, those in the know will recognise April 20th or 420 as the international date for cannabis smoking.

What does 420 friendly mean?

The meaning of 420 friendly usually refers to housing and dating apps and accommodations that are accepting of weed smokers.

What is a stoner?

A stoner is a person who regularly participates in the smoking of marijuana. It can also refer to someone who weighs a couple of 'stone' in Britain. The equivalent to about 6.35kg.

How many grams are in an ounce?

There are 28.3495 grams in an ounce.

How many grams in a quarter?

There are 7.0874 grams in a quarter (of an ounce).

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Joe Cutcliffe

Joe Cutcliffe is a Sydney-based writer and editor with over five years of experience in the digital media industry. Formerly the editor of Man of Many, Joe is an accomplished copywriter and reporter, whose work has been featured in Penthouse.