420: What Does It Really Mean, Anyway?

420: What Does It Really Mean, Anyway?

April 20 (aka, 420 — read: four-twenty) is the biggest day of the year for pot sales — by far.

According to data from MJ Freeway, the average marijuana retailer sells $24,142 worth of weed that day. That’s 97 percent more than any other day of the year. In 2003, when the California Legislature codified a medical marijuana law passed by voters, the bill got the name SB 420 due to, it’s widely assumed, the tongue-in-cheek efforts of a staffer in an assembly member’s office.

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The day is celebrated during annual “smoke-outs” on college campuses, and by pot lovers elsewhere across the globe.

But how, exactly, did April 20 become “weed day”?

The most popular 420 myths

The myths are numerous. As Mother Jones notes, some believe the name came from the disputed belief that there are 420 chemicals in marijuana. Others says it’s because 420 was California's police radio code for pot. Still others say 4/20 is Bob Marley’s birthday, or because in Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — the song in which he sings, “Everyone must get stoned” — the number 12 multiplied by 35 is 420.

While 420 does have some musical roots, those roots can be traced back to the Grateful Dead, not Marley or Dylan.

So what’s the real story behind 420?

Here’s the account, according to a 2010 Huffington Post piece:

In 1971, five high school athlete buddies in Marin County, Calif., came up with a ritual for getting high. Every day at 4:20pm — when practice was over — the group would meet at a wall next to a statue of Louis Pasteur outside their school. The group dubbed themselves “The Waldos” because they hung out near the wall.

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“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis,” Steve Capper, one of The Waldos, told the Huffington Post. “I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic. He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it,” Steve says. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

The Waldos had heard that a Coast Guard member planted cannabis plants in the nearby Point Reyes Forest — plants the serviceman could no longer take care of. Armed with a “treasure map” provided by, some in the group say, the plant’s owner himself, at least once a week the group would pile into a car, smoke weed, and search for the elusive plant (is this starting to sound like The Goonies?).

They never found the weed, but a couple of them would later find themselves in the company of the Grateful Dead. The father of one of the Waldos managed the Dead’s real estate. The older brother of another was friends with Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

“There was a place called Winterland (Ballroom), and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community,” Capper told the Huffington Post.

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By 1990, the phrase was a staple at Dead shows. Before a concert in Oakland, former Waldo Steven Bloom saw it referenced on a flyer given to him by a hippie. The flyer told the history of 420, referencing the Waldos of San Rafael. What was once a reference to time had morphed into a holiday.

“Now, there’s something even more grand than getting baked at 4:20,” the flyer read. “We’re talking about the day of celebration, the real time to get high, the grand master of all holidays: 4/20 or April 20th.”

Bloom, then a reporter for High Times, sent it to the magazine. “High Times” published a story about the history of the word, and the rest is, well, 420 history.