Where Did 420 Come From, And Where Is It Going?

People protesting holding sing with number 420 and cannabis leaf

Having its own day is one of the defining components of a culture. The special day of cannabis lovers, April 20th, has evolved rather than being chosen. For many years, the origins of this nebulous festivity were little known and widely guessed at. So what does 420 represent?

If you’re a fan of cannabis, it’s likely that you will be familiar with its association with the number 420 (pronounced “four twenty”, never “four hundred and twenty”) and by extension the date April 20th, which in the US calendar is written 4/20. But why is this the magic number for cannabis users?

Theories are manifold: It’s Bob Marley’s birthday (no); it’s police code for cannabis smoking in progress (no); it’s from Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & #35’, which contains the line ‘everybody must get stoned’, because 12 x 35 = 420 (a strange coincidence, but – no); it’s the number of chemical compounds in cannabis (no, but since we’re still discovering cannabinoids, who knows…); it’s tea-time in the Netherlands (that’s not even a thing. No). So where did the 420 tradition come from?

Origins of 420

In fact, 420 originated in 1971 when a group of school friends in San Rafael, California, set out to find an abandoned guerrilla grow. Their meeting plan – after class at 16:20 by a statue of Louis Pasteur – gave them the shorthand “420 Louis”.

As the hunt continued day after day, they dropped the “Louis”, and depending on context and inflection, “420” became a linguistic multi-tool for anything cannabis-related. The Waldos, as the group called themselves in reference to a wall they liked to sit on, never found the crop; this (and their name) may well have been due to the prolific cannabis smoking that accompanied their searches.

Louis Pasteur statue in a park
The statue of Louis Pasteur

The term spread amongst another, far larger group, also noted for enthusiastic cannabis use: Deadheads. A family connection with The Grateful Dead via one of the Waldos meant the new slang disseminated through the band and their fans, who had a tradition of congregating in venue car parks before concerts. It was during one of these gatherings that a Deadhead passed a flyer referencing 420 to a reporter of the US cannabis magazine HighTimes, Steve Bloom.

High Times adopts 420

In 1991, High Times printed the flyer. Editor Steve Hagar leapt onto the 420 bandwagon and began using the number whenever possible; holding meetings, planning Cannabis Cup ceremony events, and presumably unfailingly getting high, at 16:20. He still takes credit for making it “an international phenomenon”, despite the phrase having been in use by an extensive, worldwide, dedicated fanbase for twenty years by the time he came across it.

Bloom is less proprietary: “We posted that flyer and then we started to see little references to it. It wasn’t really much of High Times’ doing,” he says. “We weren’t really pushing it that hard, just kind of referencing the phrase.”

4/20, UNGASS and the Million Marijuana March

By the turn of the century, 420 events on April 20th were already popular and widely accepted as an international day to celebrate cannabis, and to create awareness against its illegal status. However, they have been partially usurped, partially co-opted by another major cannabis event – the Million Marijuana March.

Beginning in 1992, this far more global and far more organized protest event has been held in over 800 cities by 72 different nations. They are usually held on the first Saturday in May, and that might have something to do with the fact that most 4/20ies fall on a weekday.  

Various participating countries held the march on April 20th 2016 to coincide with the appropriately-timed UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS). For the first time since 1998 the United Nations will focus on the problems associated with the War On Drugs, many of which were caused by their previous stance of “total elimination of drugs from the world”.

Global Marijuana March 2013 in Vancouver
Global Marijuana March 2013 in Vancouver

It is interesting that this Assembly was held on April 19th, 20th, and 21st. It seems highly unlikely that the choice of dates was a deliberate nod to drug culture! However, in the decades since the phrase was only used amongst the Waldos, it has slowly but surely crept into the mainstream.

According to the Huffington Post, “In 2003, when the California legislature codified the medical marijuana law voters had approved, the bill was named SB420. “We think it was a staffer working for [lead Assembly sponsor Mark] Leno, but no one has ever fessed up,” says Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbied on behalf of the bill. California legislative staffers spoken to for this story say that the 420 designation remains a mystery…”

420 goes mainstream

As cannabis use itself becomes more mainstream, so does 420. It makes various screen appearances. Some (but not all, as popular myth has it) of the clocks in Pulp Fiction are set to 04:20. The football scoreboard in Fast Times at Ridgemont High reads 42 – 0. An episode of Family Guy dealing with cannabis use is titled “420”. There is a band called 420, albums and playlists entitled 420, and even a rather charming booklet called ‘The 420 Code’, which seems to be a Tao of Stoners.

It has also become something of a self-perpetuating myth. Craigslist is full of ‘420-friendly’ accommodation and housemates. The 420 mile marker on Interstate 70 has been stolen so many times that the Colorado Department of Transportation finally installed a ‘Mile 419.99’ sign. More recently, when Snoop Dogg accidentally tagged himself as being in Bogata, Romania rather than Bogota, Colombia, a photo of the fence of house #420 in the small village was widely shared.

Nike SB dunk high skunk sneakers
Nike SB Dunk High Skunks

Perhaps most mainstream of all are the series of Nike 420-inspired trainers. Nike SB Dunk High Skunks were released on April 20th 2010. They feature two shades of green suede, a purple swoosh and an insole with a picture of a skunk –  another ‘code’ for cannabis that is now so firmly established it can hardly be considered clandestine. In 2013, they were followed by LeBron 9 “420”s, which had psychedelic cannabis leaf fabric.

So what 420 events are happening near you? Let us know what you think of 420 in the comments – is it an important date, an outdated concept, a piece of fun or a historic event? Share your event plans too, and check back to our blog soon to see what Sensi Seeds got up to.


7 thoughts on “Where Did 420 Come From, And Where Is It Going?”

  1. Where’s Waldo now? Is he in a red and white striped top? I saw him at a beach, at 4:20

    1. Mark Smith - Sensi Seeds

      Good morning Mitchell,

      I hope you’re having a great day!
      I also saw Waldo on 420, they say he’s been around since 1987 😉


  2. Wow, I never knew the story behind 420! It’s amazing how it could start so little and snowball into the representative mass phenomenon that it is today. Also, it’s something celebrated by smoke shops and vape shops that provide discounts and unique experiences to their users. Although with corona we can’t do as much presential stuff as before, we still have those awesome promotions 😉

  3. The 420 events of Cannabis are itself very enthralling. Users can be deemed differently, and one category is of Swiss juveniles also that like to have fun with the use of Cannabis. Used in active nightlife, strangely, it is seen that such events constitute religious festivals too where Cannabis is used paired with heavy episodic drinking. It depends culture-wise as well as how cannabis festival is being celebrate. For instance in one Switzerland and Ex-Yugoslavian country study, every fourth Swiss young student at a national level reports a heavy episodic drinking that can be paired with cannabis use; the student can be of foreign background or no. This has led to violent offence too and the likelihood is higher when the juveniles are immigrants. But it is very important to note that the correlation between offensive violence and the use of Cannabis on such 420 events is undermined. Studies to tell that cannabis smoking on such events promotes states of euphoria with calmness and passivity, not aggressive behavior. However, what happens as the 420 event comes to an end; that is a question because abstinence from cannabis use can lead to hyper behavior.

  4. Ich liebe Euch Alle, Frieden und einen Guten Film euch allen. Danke Sensiseed das ihr da seid. MfG

  5. Just for reference, the reason the kids chose 4.20 pm was school closed at 3pm but lots of them did sports for an hour afterwards, so it gave them time to do that activity plus get showered & changed & on the road.

    [Disproving the notion all pot smokers are fat and lazy]

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  • Author_profiles-Red

    Scarlet Palmer

    Scarlet Palmer (they/them) is a non-binary writer, editor, and consultant specialising in cannabis counterculture. Based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Scarlet has three decades of experience centred around this maligned, multifaceted, and marvellous plant. Curating stories about its facts and fables makes them happy.
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