When was the  first time you heard someone mention “4:20?” Did you know what it meant?

You might not have, and that’s ok, considering it was code-speak for partaking in a (then) illicit activity; unknown by design. Yet over time, 420 became a normalized way to refer to using cannabis. But how did that ever start?

Think back to the first time you heard the reference, and try to remember what you believed. We asked a few of our friends to do just that- here’s how they answered:

❝ I just assumed it was Jerry Garcia’s birthday, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

❝ I heard it was Willie Nelson‘s birthday…  and I still have no idea if that’s true.

❝ A friend told me it was the daily time that everybody in the world got high together- kind of like “tea time.” But I never knew the significance of the specific minute.

❝ I was at a music festival, and got woken up in the middle of the night by a nearby camper shouting “It’s 4:20!” to his friends. I was completely baffled why he was so excited. The next day, I made a joke out of it, not realizing it was already “a thing.”

❝ I remember thinking it was a time of day that people could smoke without getting in trouble. So naive!

❝ I thought it was the physical address of all police stations. Ha!

❝ I originally thought it was the police code for cannabis possession, which I believe is one of the most popular misconceptions.

That last guy is right on. Many people thought this was true- perhaps you’re one of them! And in the pre-Siri days, why wouldn’t you believe it?  Encyclopedia Britannica wasn’t going to help you out on this one, and police code sounds like a logical answer.

Other wrong assumptions about the number include:

  • There are 420 active chemicals found in cannabis.
  • Like 69, it refers to a sexual position.
  • It was the date Bob Marley died.

Funny enough, the true tale actually sounds more like a rumor than the rumors themselves. The history of this curious number has been researched quite deeply, and one common story holds up. It’s probably not what you think.

Turns out, it was all thanks to the Waldos.

If you’re reaction is “Uh…. who?” you’re not alone. They weren’t famous by any right, but they did have connections that helped their code word achieve its fame.

The Waldos were a small group of friends from California who attended San Rafael High School in the early seventies. They got their namesake from – wait for it – hanging out against the wall of their school. Yup.

These kids met beneath a statue of Louis Pasteur each day at 4:20, the precise time that after school activities let out. “Louis 4:20” became their way of confirming that everyone was planning on an afternoon puff (somewhere more secluded than the wall, we hope). Though, contrary to their wall-lounging tendencies, these kids were on a mission.

As local legend had it, in nearby Point Reyes, an untended marijuana crop supposedly flourished. The Waldos were determined to find it; they even had stumbled across a map. Romping through the neighborhood, seeking herbal treasure each sunny California afternoon at 4:20 via some mysterious old map… the mental image just has to make you smile. (And definitely conjures up some “Goonies” nostalgia if you’re a fan of classic 80’s movies!)

So did the Waldos succeed?

Disappointingly, no (a rather anticlimactic ending to what might have otherwise been film-worthy).  So you have to wonder: how then, did 4:20 become a nationwide catch-phrase, ultimately morphing into a movement, complete with its own national holiday?

The Dead, of course! (You just knew the Grateful Dead had to come into the picture eventually.) Story goes: legendary bassist, Phil Lesh, overheard the phrase from his friend, one of the Waldo’s older brothers. He liked it. He used it. And it caught on, big-time. Somewhere along the way, the “Louis” got dropped. The 4:20 reference was eventually used in a Dead concert poster, and written about in High Times magazine (which has been around since ‘74). And that was all it took.


Photo courtesy of Chris Stone

There is, like with all claims to fame, a bit of controversy as to who can truly take credit for the popularity of today’s favorite hazy minute. NBC news covered the story last year, should you want to see what these dudes look like today (as well as learn how they ever got that map in the first place).

The bragging rights are indeed something to covet. Today, there are so many organized celebrations on 4/20, that there’s actually a national database of cannabis-themed events. Who would have guessed that a simple sneaky saying, born out of a charming afterschool ritual, would lead to a world-renowned movement?

If the holiday already holds an extra special place in your heart, here’s a list of ideas on how to throw a 4/20 party so groovy, you’ll wake up thinking it’s 1975 all over again.

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