420: It’s a day. It’s a time of day. It’s a day of time. Or something. It’s also, in the age of the internet, a meme.
These days, even people who have never consumed weed in their lifetime still know what 420 means. It’s the time of day you light up. And it’s the day of the year to celebrate all things cannabis.
Stoners have known all this for decades. But how, where, and when did 420 come into being? The answer, as with many great marijuana legacies, lies in the hippie days. And in the modern era of legalization, the guys who first merged 420 with the flower have come forward with both their story and with documentation to back it up.
In 1971, Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich were students and friends at San Rafael High School in California who called themselves the Waldos because they hung out by a wall outside of the school.
In the fall of that year, Capper was given a map that was purported to show where a Coast Guard member was covertly raising a crop of ganja on Point Reyes. The brother of the Guardsman supplied the map and told Capper that his sibling was too paranoid about getting caught to harvest the grow. He had thus tapped the Waldos to be entrusted with the job.
Capper alerted his friends, and the five agreed to meet at 4:20 in the afternoon at a statue of Louis Pasteur on their high school campus. They quickly adopted the phrase “420 Louie” as a code for their quest. Eventually they shortened it to 420 and used this as a slang term to refer to their stash.
We know this because the Waldos (who have trademarked their name) have long since gone public.
They remain friends a half century later and operate a website that tells their story and provides documentation showing that they indeed coined the term.
Among the pieces of evidence found on the page are a letter from Reddix to Capper while the latter was attending college in the early 1970s. Reddix signed off by telling Capper that in the envelope he would find “a little 420 enclosed for your weekend.”
A friend of the Waldos also wrote a letter to Capper, asking him about a 420 flag. This was a banner she had made them in arts and crafts class, and it still exists.
References to 420 are also found in other letters the Waldos exchanged at the time, as well as in an issue of the school newspaper.
Despite claims from others, it’s widely accepted that the Waldos have proved their case. But what started as an inside joke somehow seeped out. How this happened is unclear, but according to a 2017 article on the website Live Science, it appears that the scene surrounding the Grateful Dead had something to do with it.
The Waldos weren’t hard-core Deadheads, a point they emphasize on their website, but they did enjoy the music, and occasionally one of them would attend a show. The best guess is that sometime in the ‘70s one of them mentioned the joke to a Deadhead, who told a couple of friends, and away it went from there.
Sometime later, Reddix went to work as a roadie for the Dead, furthering the connection between the band, its followers, and the term.
Capper said he would hear it from hitchhikers and others around California during the mid- to late ‘70s. By then many assumed it was the police code for marijuana. This was false, but it was the belief that took hold, and by the ‘80s 420 was gaining notoriety.
1990 was the turning point. According to a 2018 Time Magazine article, someone went wandering through the parking lot at the New Year’s Grateful Dead shows in Oakland that December, handing out flyers announcing the first ever 420 gathering. It was to be held on nearby Mount Tamalpais on the following 4/20 at 4:20.
One of the flyers fell into the hands of Steve Bloom, a reporter at the time for High Times. The magazine printed the flyer, which erroneously claimed that 420 was police slang for marijuana smoking in progress. From this point, the magazine began using the number in occasional articles.
According to a 2015 blog entry by Bloom, for the next five years the magazine would periodically mention the flyer’s explanation of the term’s origin in police codes. Then they were contacted by the Waldos, who told them the real story. At the time, with the drug war waging, they preferred anonymity. But they wanted to set the record straight.
For those indulging in the plant, the origin of the term was less important than what it promised.
A worldwide time of day to get high. 420 took hold, and as the ‘90s and ‘00s proceeded, the number found its way into numerous cultural references. Most famous were the movie “Pulp Fiction,” in which all the clocks are set to the iconic hour, and a Family Guy episode titled “420” that finds two of the characters trying to legalize the herb.
April 20 also became the day for many public cannabis events, a movement that started before a wave of states legalized the plant and which has only gained momentum since.
Every year, the occasion is marked with gatherings across the country, from California to Colorado to the nation’s capital and beyond. As Bloom wrote in his blog entry, the Waldos “birthed the idea of a stoner holiday, which April 20 has become.”
But the originators themselves seem fairly modest about their unique role in American history.
“The Waldos never purposely tried to insert 420 into culture,” they write on their website, “yet despite all the modern hoopla about it, it was never anything more than a private Waldo joke.”
Oh, and in case you were wondering, despite gallant efforts, the Waldos didn’t find the crop of cannabis that started the whole thing. It wasn’t until decades later that they discovered the location, long after the plants had gone to seed and beyond.
As for the unknown Deadhead who distributed flyers announcing the first ever official 420 gathering, his identity is lost in the wisps of smoke that swirled from the parking lot of Oakland Coliseum on that long ago winter’s night.
David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.