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What is 420?

Few myths are as well cultured and less known than the ones that surround the history of the term 420.

Where the heck did 420 come from? This has been a frequent question among my friends and depending who I ask; the answers can range from it originating from police codes to California legislation. The most common answer I get is that it refers to a police code which means "Marijuana Smoking in Progress." With a little research, you will soon find out that is not the case. This then begs the question: "Where did this come from." As a part-time reader of history and cultural events, my search immediately took me to the king of socially contributed content. Let's see what Wikipedia has to say about this.

420, 4:20, or 4/20 (pronounced four-twenty) is a code-term in cannabis culture that refers to the consumption of cannabis, especially smoking cannabis around the time 4:20 p.m. and smoking cannabis in celebration on the date April 20.

That is a fine clinical example. But it leaves us a bit unsatisfied.

The Outcome IS The Cause

Generally, cultural lore comes to be through various phases. It may start out as a socially acceptable mode of communication that excludes outsiders and creates a layer of cohesion inside a specific group. As those groups gain power and or value outsiders will start to notice their signs of prosperity. Then the outsiders mimic and then adopt it. After some time the lore starts to take on its own value. It will start to lose its original meaning at this point, and the herd will create it into something it is not.
The original idea still carries power forward through the commercialization and will market itself into the future. Even if the origins are not understood, the effects are perpetuated into the future.
Where do nursery rhymes come from? Children are exceptional at propagating these sorts of ideas across borders and generations. This also a fascinating study as you have time. Maybe after a really gnarly bong rip you can go sing some of your own nursery rhymes and see if how many of the local kids know them.


The idea of the memetics, or the concept of encapsulating cultural phenomenon into threads of society, was presented by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The concepts are application in this situation because not only is 420 a meme but it is also a time-based cultural phenomenon that has attracted the attention of a national audience and is no hosting commercial festivals promoting domestic beer, questionable music and the very best in Chinese-made swag.

The Fake History

Bob Marley neither died nor was born on April 20. No other notable substance promoting artists died on this day.

The Grateful Dead smoked a lot. They also partook in various other reality-enhancing substances. And they did not always stay in the 420th room of the hotels they were in. Although for kicks I think they would have liked to if possible.

Adolf Hitler was born on April 20. This is something I didn't know until researching this. There are no connections here. But if anyone could have used a solid bong rip to chill the F out, it was him. The same with the Columbine High kids since they decided to lose their minds officially on this day. How many crimes would have been avoided with the access to the mind-calming effects of THC?

Cannabis does not have 420 chemical compounds. Chemistry is not my strong suit. I will not expand on this.

California did introduce SB 420, but the term was already in wide circulation by then. Whoever did this should get a pat on the back. I wasn't able to discover it.

The Real Story?

As far as I can tell there seems to be some consensus on the origins. In the 1970's in San Rafael, CA. According to myth these five students, known as the Waldos internally and among their friends, would meet at 4:20 pm after sports practice to smoke out.
A Coast Guard member had planted a small crop of plants that eventually took off on their own, and he was unable to tend them. The boys were gifted a glorious treasure map that was to lead them to glorious and elusive booty. Unfortunately, the garden of dreams was never found. At least that is what they reported. The Waldo's had connections to the Grateful Dead through one of the father's real estate management business. The interaction of the kids and the highly influential band caused a viral spread of the term. It eventually made its way into the culture that permeated from that band. This is how you get viruses. Bands.

Cultural Group Phenomenon

As with all great social meetups, the ones surrounding this have lost all the alure to me. There is a romance to the forbidden exhibitionism of partaking of illegal substances in public.

The rebellious non-conformists of the University of Boulder and UC Santa Cruz both boast of having the larges open "smoke-outs." It is relatively peaceful during these and doesn't attract much in the way of negative pressure.

The High Times magazine Cannabis cup is usually held on these days. The list goes on forever.

It is 4:20! Time To Light Up

The power of the symbol is now to the point that across the country, stoners will light up today at 4:20 PM. There are few other cultural events that have grown to this level of adherence.

Before we turn 420 into the Christmas of Cannabinoids, we should take the time to reflect on what is powerful about this story. It is the story of a small group of friends who came together to share experiences and bond. In doing so, they changed the world just a little bit.


LA Weekly



History Channel



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