A modest disclaimer: April 20 is a day. Plain and simple. To some it might be Pot Day, to others it’s simply Sunday. It could be a birthday, or the 152nd anniversary of the invention of pasteurization, or the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 16 landing on the moon. It marks 98 years since Wrigley Field opened, four years since the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion, and 15 years since Columbine. But it’s just a day. Where you draw today’s significance is wholly up to you. The following represents one narrative for April 20.
Many people assume they know where 420 comes from. And depending on their sources and current state of inebriation, the stories can become twisted and wild. “It’s the number of chemicals in marijuana,” “It’s the police code for people smoking pot,” “It’s a reference to a Bob Dylan song,” “It’s the essential number that binds the universe together,” “If you play the Barney theme song backwards he repeatedly says ’420,’” “It’s the distance from the sun to your heart.” It’s nonsense, mostly. But don’t tell the adamant and stoned that. Conspiracies and gobbledygook are soooooooo convincing to the baked.
If you manage to get a word in because your friends are busy silently philosophizing over blades of grass or the taste of soil, this is the story to tell.
In 1971 a group of five high school students in San Rafael, CA were given a treasure map leading to a mystical crop of marijuana. The map was passed down to the kids from a Coast Guard service member who no longer cared to tend for the patch. Armed with the treasure map to the mystery pot, the Waldos—who named themselves after a wall where they regularly hung about—decided it was their duty to search the Point Reyes peninsula for the plants. School ended at 3:30, which was followed by practice for some sport they played. At 4:20 they would be free to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside their school.
On a given day, they’d cross paths in the hallways and one would ask “Are we looking today?” and the others would reply, “4:20-Louis.” Eventually they dropped the “Louis” and would just say “4:20.”
They’d hop into a car and smoke all the way to Pt. Reyes. And while they meandered around the forest looking for the crop, they’d smoke then too. On the way back home, they’d smoke as well. In those hours they would have deeply intelligent conversations, unravel the secrets of the universe, solve world issues, and say they loved each other very much. They did this daily for a couple of weeks but never found the crop. But they had found a code word.
Gone was the suspicious language behind asking someone if they wanted to smoke. There were no longer any paranoid glances for authority when they asked each other if they were stoned. They would simply say “420,” telepathically make the connection, high-five, and get on with their day. Fourtwenty. Fourtwenty. FoorTwunty. FurTwunty. FurTwonny.
It was the Grateful Dead that liberated the phrase from a lone high school in California. The Grateful Dead lived in the Marin County hills, which was located only a few blocks away from San Rafael High School. The Waldos would hang around backstage at Grateful Dead shows, and even go on tour with them as roadies. They’d be in the thick of the scene using the phrase “420″ whenever cannabis was to be moved, purchased, sold, or consumed. Dead kept touring across the country in the 70s and 80s, and 420 went with it.
420 got its biggest break in the early 1990s when High Times, a publication dedicated to all things marijuana, starting publishing the phrase with little to no context.
It has promulgated through stoner culture since then. People form rallies around April 20th and collectively light up at 4:20 pm. It’s the subject of jokes. It’s a test to see if somebody is hip to the stoner-speak. It’s a casual counter-culture mantra that represents stoners at their most organized. It’s the lynchpin of their identity. There is something cosmic in thousands of people performing their own rituals at the same instance in time. On 4:20, stoners have even more reason to tell each other about the secrets of unity in the universe, man.
It has also become a phrase of false entitlement (all entitlement is false). Cheeky fellows take to the Internet to ramble madly about 420, pot, the law, injustice, police, freedom, and other savvy subjects. The rest of the world collectively groans at their oafishness and poor grammar. They hashtag #marijuana and #420 to separate themselves from the rest. They’re doing it wrong. 420, just like any organized event, is about identifying with a culture greater than yourself, a culture where individuals in concurrent motion build an identity together. If smoking pot is your fancy, fine. If you’re celebrating 420, rad. Remember the event is about making the world smaller, not yourself bigger.