Both marijuana smokers and non-smokers recognize April 20 or 4/20 as a national holiday for cannabis culture, but few actually know how the date got chosen.
Some say “420” is code among police officers for “marijuana smoking in progress.” Some note 4/20 is also Adolf Hitler’s birthday. And some go as far as to cite Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” because 12 multiplied by 35 equals 420.
But, to put it bluntly, those rumors of the history behind how April 20, and 4/20, got associated with marijuana are false.
The most credible story traces 4/20 to Marin County, Calif. In 1971, five students at San Rafael High School would meet at 4:20 p.m. by the campus’ statue of chemist Louis Pasteur to partake. They chose that specific time because extracurricular activities had usually ended by then. This group — Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich — became known as the “Waldos” because they met at a wall. They would say “420” to each other as code for marijuana.
As Reddix told TIME in 2017, “We got tired of the Friday-night football scene with all of the jocks. We were the guys sitting under the stands smoking a doobie, wondering what we were doing there.”
Known 420 Myths
Despite the popularity of the term, most people have no idea how or why 420 became associated with marijuana. That’s why there are a lot of myths, rumors, and stories floating around about its origins and how it came to be used. Here are some of the most popular myths.
Myth: Police dispatch code for smoking pot is 420
The number 420 is not actually a NYPD or California police radio code for anything.
Myth: It’s related to California’s penal code
Some people say that 420 was drawn from the California criminal code to punish the use or distribution of marijuana but that’s incorrect. The code 420 in the penal code actually refers to obstructing entry on public land.
Myth: There are 420 active chemicals in marijuana
There are actually more than 500 active ingredients in marijuana though the exact number goes up and down depending on the make-up of the marijuana.
Myth: April 20th is Hitler’s birthday
Although that was Hitler’s birth date, the symbolism of “420” developed separately from that fact. It is just a coincidence.
Myth: April 20th is the date of the Columbine school shootings
Although the Columbine shooting occurred on April 20th, 1999, the term was already in use long before the tragedy.
The Real Origin of 420
According to Steve Bloom, an editor at High Times magazine, the term 420 originated at San Rafael High School in 1971.
A group of about a dozen people who called themselves the Waldos met up to smoke marijuana at 4:20 pm every day. Rather than announce they were going to get high, they used the code “420.”
Apparently, the term spread, and it became a way for restaurants and businesses to let customers know that they were “420 friendly.” Over the years, its origins were lost, but the “code” stuck. April 20th (aka 4/20) eventually became known as Weed Day or Pot Smokers Day, and people all over frequently gather and smoke marijuana together to celebrate the day.
Marijuana legalization is changing 4/20
What 4/20 stands for varies from person to person. Some people just want to get high and have fun. Others see the day as a moment to push for legalization, or celebrate legalization now that more states are adopting it and it has popular opinion behind it.
In the 1970s, 4/20 was part of a smaller counterculture movement that embraced marijuana as a symbol to protest against broader systemic problems in the US, like overseas wars and the power of corporations in America. “Marijuana was the way you said you weren’t a suit,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, previously told me.
In recent years, marijuana legalization activists have tried to bring a more formal aspect to the celebration, framing it as a moment to push their political agenda. Organizers for the 2014 Denver rally — during the first year marijuana sales were legal in the state — put out a statement comparing the battle for legal marijuana to “the time when Jews fled from slavery in Egypt,” a moment commemorated in Passover celebrations. “This year’s rally represents the continuing fight for freedom from economic slavery for marginalized members of our community and a rebirth of creative genius that will get us there,” they wrote.
Businesses are also trying to take advantage of the holiday. Eddie Miller, the CEO of Invest in Cannabis, which seeks to bring investment into the marijuana industry, told me in the early years of state-level legalization that his company was trying to build and sponsor major 4/20 gatherings around the country — similar to what other companies, some of which Miller has been involved with, have done with holidays like St. Patrick’s Day.
“Our perspective is 4/20 is a real holiday — no smaller than St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween,” Miller previously told me. “It’s just nobody knows about it yet. And our company is going to let everyone know about it.”
4/20 is becoming a commercial event
Originally 4/20 was a counterculture holiday to protest, at least in part, the social and legal stigmas against marijuana. Marijuana legalization undercuts that purpose: As big businesses and corporations begin to grow, sell, and market pot, marijuana is losing its status as a counterculture symbol — and that, Humphreys speculated, could bring the end of the traditional, countercultural 4/20.
“If a corporate marijuana industry adopts 4/20, it would still be a celebrated event, but not with the same countercultural meaning,” Humphreys said. “People celebrated Christmas long before it became an occasion for an orgy of gift-buying and materialist consumption, but the meaning of the holiday for most people was different then than it is now.”
Companies such as Invest in Cannabis admit they’re already leveraging the holiday as another opportunity to promote the industry and its products — much like beer and other alcohol companies now do with St. Patrick’s Day.
“The media is covering 4/20 as a consumer interest story,” Miller of Invest in Cannabis said. “But some portion of the media is covering 4/20 as a call to arms for the industry — so [in 2015] there are multiple competitive business conferences that are happening in Denver, the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and Las Vegas.”