420 Myths and Facts a rundown of the holiday and its history

420 Myths and Facts: A Quick Primer and History of the Holiday

Today is a celebration of everything marijuana. April 20 (or 420, 4:20 or 4/20) has become a holiday for cannabis. With marijuana now a multi-billion dollar, locally legal business in more than half of the states for recreational or medicinal use, the holiday now is a money maker for cannabis dispensaries, but it hasn’t always been this way. 

When the 420 festivities began in the 1990s, marijuana was illegal, and the events were protests against prohibition. 

The term’s origins remain pretty murky. Some posit 420 was a code for the California penal system used to punish cannabis use — it wasn’t. Others have said it refers to some kind of police radio code against pot users — it doesn’t. Some even believe it’s a nod to the 1966 Bob Dylan song “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” because the chorus says “everybody must get stoned,” and if you multiply those two numbers, you get 420. Who knew? 

But the most accepted story is the Waldos — a group of high school students in San Rafael, Calif. — who met daily after school under a statue of Louis Pasteur on campus. They began to use 420 as a code for their cannabis use in the early 1970s. Maybe it was because one of the Waldos later became a roadie for the Grateful Dead, but, even without social media, the idea soon spread around the country: 4:20pm was a good time to stop and smoke a little dope. A kind of pot happy hour.

The term’s origins remain pretty murky. Some posit 420 was a code for the California penal system used to punish cannabis use — it wasn’t. Others have said it refers to some kind of police radio code against pot users — it doesn’t.

Somewhere along the line — after it had been repeated at rock concerts and especially after High Times magazine told the story of the high schoolers — it became associated with a date, April 20, as well as the correlating time of day. The day became known as both a protest and celebration, as thousands of people around the country — many on college campuses — gathered to light their joints or pipes at precisely 4:20pm on 4/20.

The smoke-outs were meant to highlight the stupidity of the ‘war on drugs.’ That so many were willing to gather to break the law shows how popular cannabis was.

The celebrations got big, really big in the 2000s, and it drew increasing amounts of media attention. Authorities weren’t always pleased. I attended several events that drew upwards of 10,000 people to the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder. People would gather and stand around until precisely 4:20, while police helicopters swooped in for close-ups of marijuana use, and a great cloud of smoke arose and dissipated five minutes later. Just in 2010, irritated, exasperated CU leaders poured fish guts onto the grass in the central quad — really — to keep people away. It did.

Until legalization began actually happening, that’s the way it stood. In Colorado, like many states that legalized, the events after 2012 took on a more commercial tone. Today there are two arguments to the 420 events, with adherents on either side.

“I believe 420 is a ritualization of cannabis use that holds deep meaning for our subculture,” former High Times reporter Steven Hager says. “It also points us in a direction for the responsible use of cannabis.”

Denver lawyer Warren Edson argues the holiday has lost its sense of protest. 

There should be some recognition that what’s going on with marijuana still isn’t right, but 420 stopped being that a long time ago,” Edson told Denver’s Westword. “It looks a lot more like St. Patrick’s Day than Earth Day.”

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now TheNewsStation.com. He covered the popular music industry for years, worked extensively in internet and cable news, and co-authored The Toy Book, a history of OK Boomer playthings. Sweet Lunacy, his documentary film co-written and produced with Don Chapman, is a history of the Boulder music scene from the 1950s through the 1980s. He is author and editor of Dimensional Cannabis, the first pop-up book of marijuana.

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now TheNewsStation.com. He covered the popular music industry for years, worked extensively in internet and cable news, and co-authored The Toy Book, a history of OK Boomer playthings. Sweet Lunacy, his documentary film co-written and produced with Don Chapman, is a history of the Boulder music scene from the 1950s through the 1980s. He is author and editor of Dimensional Cannabis, the first pop-up book of marijuana.

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