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.
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”.
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.
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.