The Hazy Origin of 420

origin of 420

The number 420 holds a special place in the hearts of many medical and recreational marijuana consumers. It is an easy way to share one’s love of cannabis (“I’m a 420 fan”) or tolerance (“420 friendly apartments”). But, what does 420 mean? And, why is it so popular among marijuana smokers?

It’s perhaps fitting that the meaning and origin of 420 remains so hazy in popular culture. Before we clear the fog and identify the true history behind 420 – as far as we can tell – let’s explore some of the most common incorrect explanations you’ll find on the internet.

Myths About the Origin of 420

“420 is a Police Radio Code / Penal Code”

One of the most common false claims for 420’s origin is that it was the police radio code for marijuana smoking. Similarly, many people believe 420 is California’s penal code for marijuana use. While both of these ideas would seem to make sense, neither is true.

As Snopes points out, California does now have Senate Bill 420 which regulates medical marijuana. But, “This bill comes years after the term ‘420’ was associated with marijuana and indeed its number likely was chosen because of the existing pop culture connection.”

“There are 420 Chemical Compounds in Marijuana”

While the number of chemical compounds in marijuana varies depending on your source, it isn’t 420. High Times magazine once cited a figure of 315 chemical compounds, while longtime cannabis researcher Dr. Rudolf Brenneisen (University of Bern) references 483 identified compounds in Forensic Science and Medicine: Marijuana and the Cannabinoids.

“4/20 is the Date a Famous Musician Died”

Some folks say April 20 th is the day Jimi Hendrix died. Others say Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. While all of these musicians were identified with drug use and culture, none of them passed away on 4/20.

“4/20 is the Best Date to Plant Marijuana”

While this may be true in some parts of the world, the “best date” to plant marijuana will change from region to region and country to country.

“4:20 is When Stoners Would Sneak Off to Smoke a Joint”

This myth gets closer to the truth but still misses the mark. As we’ll see, there was a group of marijuana enthusiasts that would meet up at 4:20, but that just happened to be the time that worked for their schedule. They weren’t putting out a call for everyone to light up at 4:20.

There are dozens of other popular explanations for the meaning of 420 and why it is tied so closely to marijuana and cannabis culture. So, what’s the truth?

As far as we can tell, it starts with a group of teenagers and a hand-drawn map.

The Real 420 Origin Story: Waldos, the Grateful Dead, and High Times

In 1971, there was a group of teenagers at San Rafael High School in California. They were known as the Waldos on account of the wall where they would hang out. It was a different time.

After coming across a hand-drawn map that would supposedly lead them to a hidden marijuana crop at Point Reyes (exactly how remains unclear), the Waldos began their treasure hunt.

Every day when the friends finished after-school sports – about 4pm – they would book it to their meeting place, smoke some pot, and set out to search for the marijuana fields. Right around 4:20pm.

They were already avid smokers, and the term “420 (four-twenty)” quickly spread amongst the group and their friends. As luck would have it, a friend of a friend of a friend was a member of the Grateful Dead. Before long, many of the band’s fans – the Deadheads – were using the term.

Almost 20 years later, an editor for High Times would see the 420 origin story on a Grateful Dead concert flyer. He brought “420” back to his staff, who began using it in their industry-leading magazine.

In the years to follow, 420 spread like wildfire. Thus, a legendary number was born: with a group of treasure-hunting teens, a rock band, and a magazine.

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