420 is a well-known number for cannabis history culture. From marijuana merchandise to the unofficial/official holiday of cannabis, 420 is the numerical descriptor of all things cannabis. But where did this specific number come from and why is it so heavily associated with marijuana? We’ve all heard stories of the mysterious origin, but now it’s time to get the 401 on 420.
The origin of 420 is rumored to be the police code for marijuana smoking in progress, or a mathematical product of a Bob Dylan song, among other mythical origins of the phrase. Probably the most famous origin story for this phenomenon centers around a group of high school “stoners” making 420 their daily smoking time after school. Interestingly enough, this is one of the few times when the urban legend is true.
San Rafael, California is an affluent city located about 30 minutes north of San Francisco. Nestled among 33 acres across from San Rafael Creek and just minutes from the bay, San Rafael high school gains its fame not from its beautiful location but from a different type of greenery altogether.
The Actual History
In 1971, five students nicknamed the “Waldos” would meet at their school statue of chemist Louis Pasteur at 4:20 pm. They would meet up after school to smoke cannabis and search for a legendary local marijuana grove that the Waldos believed they’d acquired a map to. For the group that received their name due to hanging at a wall at their school, 420 became their code phrase of choice for marijuana.
The code spread throughout California, and thanks to a legendary California rock band, the phrase became known across America. One of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, was introduced to Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh by his brother, and “420” was adopted by the band. Flyers created by “Deadheads” in 1990 advertised for fellow cannabis enthusiasts to smoke “420” on the 20th of April, at 4:20 pm.
Steve Bloom, the former reporter for High Times magazine, got a hold of one of these flyers and printed it in the magazine in 1991. The magazine continued to use the number in reference to marijuana and in 1998 confirmed that the Waldos were the creators of the term. Thanks to High Times, 420 became known worldwide and the Deadheads that first created that flyer became the originators of an international holiday for cannabis lovers around the world to celebrate their favorite flower.
The Waldos comprised of Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, Mark Gravich and Steve Capper. They have since been the subject of numerous articles and interviews, including Time magazine and the History channel, and they’ve kept their 420 flag and letters between group members in a San Francisco bank vault to preserve an important origin of cannabis history.
Although they never found the fabled hidden cannabis grove, the Waldos left an imprint on marijuana culture that remains relevant and celebrated almost 50 years later.