Of all the Inside Jokes surrounding cannabis culture, 420 is perhaps the most identifiable. Pretty much anyone who smokes pot – and plenty of those who don’t – know all about 420. While some roll their eyes and say it’s juvenile, others laugh and sometimes notice the time or date when they light up. Still others organize, promote and network on the back of professional festival around it.
But how many of us know the origins of this smoke-friendly shorthand?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely heard a handful of rumors about how it came to be. In fact, when I sampled my friends almost everyone had a slightly different story. Some swore it was the old police code for marijuana busts. Others said it grew out of a group of high school friends. A few people said it had some connection to Hitler’s birthday. Plus, of course, there were plenty of people who just assumed it had come from a Cheech & Chong bit.
In the end, I decided to roll up my sleeves and attempt to clear the smoke in search of the truth. Turns out, clear answers are pretty hard to find – but not impossible. So let’s go through the most popular myths and rumors and find out, once and for all, how this ball got rolling.
Myth 1: Police Criminal Code Reference
This is one of the most popular explanations for 420. The theory is that 420 was once the police code for cannabis possession. In most cases people would say simply that it was ‘California penal code’ but sometimes they would get specific enough to say it was from San Rafael.
In the end, various police departments and specifically the San Rafael department denied any connection to using this code. Searches online regarding various local and federal police codes show no reference to 420 as a code for marijuana possession.
Myth 2: Hitler’s Birthday?
This is a case of a weird coincidence that became a full-blown and highly controversial theory. Here are the facts:
- 1. 420 is a thing.
- 2. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1899
The story is that because Ol’ Adolf was such a Controlling Cathy, blazing up on his birthday was a communal Eff You to the Failed Fuhrer.
It’s a nice idea, but there are two Camberwell Carrot sized problems with this theory.
First is that the term 420 didn’t enter into the popular vernacular until the 1970s at the earliest. There is no record of it back in the 1940s, when anything that defied or mocked Hitler was Big News. At that time, there were multiple propaganda campaigns that directly mocked or focused on sending a giant Middle Finger to Hitler. In fact, one campaign went as far as to proclaim people were ‘Riding with Hitler’ any time they drove on their own and didn’t carry at least one extra passenger in order to conserve resources. This was time when America culture wouldn’t have passed up any opportunity to Stick It to Hitler, even if that meant endorsing recreational drug use.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, HITLER LOVED DRUGS. Seriously. He was doped to the gills on government grade meth nearly the entire time he was in power. So smoking weed to offend him would have been like drinking an Old Fashioned to offend Hunter S. Thompson.
So let’s stop trying to associate anything Hitler-related with marijuana. It doesn’t make any logical sense and it’s offensive to the marijuana.
Myth 3: Biblical Origin
There’s no shortage of theories that connect the Christian Bible with marijuana use, as well as psychedelics. You need to dig a little deeper to get to the proposed 420 connection and, to be honest, it’s tenuous at best.
Essentially the theory goes that people connect with 420 is that the Bible features it indirectly. Supporters claim that if you lift the 20th verse in the fourth chapter of certain books of the Bible, each one is somehow related to marijuana. More to the point, they claim if you read them in the order in which they appear, it describes a pot party.
Check it out and decide for yourself:
- Kings 4:20 – The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. [Setting the scene for the party.]
- Chronicles 4:20 – The lampstands of pure gold with their lamps, to burn in front of the inner sanctuary as prescribed. [An early version of a dab rig or specialized bong.]
- Job 4:20 – Between dawn and dusk they are broken to pieces; unnoticed, they perish forever. [A reference to breaking or crumbling cannabis and then burning / cashing it.]
- Daniel 4:20 – The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth. [A weed induced perception of the importance of the cannabis plant.]
- Mark 4:20 – Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown [Description of how the host cultivates like-minded people, attracts friends and/or grows his own supply.]
- Luke 4:20 – Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him [Reference to rolling a joint and having everyone wait for him to light it.]
- John 4:20 – If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. [A reference to the kind of weed induced epiphanies you get when you’re fully stoned.]
While the original author makes a persuasive argument, critics are quick to point out several problems with this theory. Their biggest issue is that not only does this list not encompass each book of the Bible, it actually represents less than one-tenth of the book in the King James Version of the Bible. In fact, using this formula to look at other 4:20 verses in the Bible suggest that there’s absolutely no pattern.
Myth 4: High School Smoke Buddies
This is the myth that’s closest to the truth.
As the story goes, a small group of close friends in high school used to make it a point to met up after class each day to get stoned. Since school let out just before 4 o’clock, they needed to give themselves time to get to their lockers, off campus and meet up. So they set the time at 4:20 and the rest, they say, is history.
It’s close, but not quite.
The Real 420 Origin Story: High School Treasure Hunters
The only verifiable origin story for 420 does involve a group of high school friends, but they weren’t meeting to simply blaze up.
They wanted to track down a cannabis field.
The story is simple enough:
Back in 1971, a groups of friends in San Rafael, California got together. The boys called themselves ‘The Waldos” because they met at a specific wall outside school grounds. Eventually, they caught wind of an abandoned cannabis crop and allegedly found a Goonies style treasure map on where to find it. The boys agreed to meet after school, at 4:20, each day to set out and find their treasure. Between them, they referred to the ongoing project with the phrase “4:20 Louis” since their starting point was a statue of famed scientist Louis Pasteur.
They never found the crop but they did get into the habit of meeting up every day. Once they had given up on finding their treasure, they continued to meet up and simply dropped the ‘Louis’ from their shorthand since now they weren’t setting off to find a treasure trove of weed – they were just meeting to blaze up.
From High School to Mainstream
You might wonder how an inside joke among a group of high school friends became an international code. In the end, the code filtered out because of a connection with one of the most influential bands of all time. The original group of five guys – Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich – all went on to get involved with following the Grateful Dead for awhile. Reddix’s brother was friends with band member Phil Lesh and that, in turn, garnered back stage access for the group.
So they smoked with roadies and crew members, and they continued to use their 420 password and so it spread. Because the Dead toured so extensively, the story went with them and eventually filtered out to stoners all over the world.
Then, in the 80s, Steven Hager of High Times wrote “Stoner Smart or Stoner Stupid?” In the article he traces the roots right back to Grateful Dead followers. Hager went one step further though and suggested that 420 was more than just a code, it was actually the right time of day to light up. His theory was that Smart Stoners keep weed in its place, enjoying at the end of a long day which made the time of 4:20 perfect.
Hager’s twist on the story – and his initial omission of The Waldos – sent the 420 code into the mainstream. The rest, as they say, is history.
The impact of 420 in Cannabis culture is nothing short of amazing. Entire festivals have grown out from it with April 20th becoming a sort of Holy Day for stoners worldwide. It brings together stoners, pot-heads and weed aficionados of all stripes and is a common thread that cuts through our differences. 420 has become about more than simply smoking or getting high – it’s become one of the oldest and most revered traditions in cannabis culture.