The Story Behind 420

420 is a universal timestamp and a day the cannabis community has made their own. However, even some of the most passionate smokers don’t know why this time or what this day means. So in light of this here’s a brief history for you.


The 20th of April (4/20) has been coined as the day of cannabis culture across the globe, while the time 4:20 is a signal to all tokers that the day is coming to an end and it is time to light up. But why is this? What is the reason behind 420 becoming a symbol for the cannabis community? 

The Rumours

Over the years, many stories have been told and theories proposed as to the origins of 420, some of them more outlandish than the last.  

Many know that the cannabis plant contains upwards of 400 chemical compounds, although a definitive number has not been proposed yet. This has led many to believe that the number is in fact 420 and this has given rise to the symbol of 💚4️⃣2️⃣0️⃣💚.

Some say it is a term secretly coined by musician Bob Dylan in his song titled “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. If you do the maths and multiply 12 by 35, you get 420 – revealing the secret message! Although this song does have quite a different meaning for stoned. 

Then there are those who link the term with the law. The idea here is that ‘420’ was once code used by the police to state that cannabis smoking is in progress. Unfortunately, code 420 actually refers to homicide in the US. 

There was also a bill passed in California, in 2003, which so happens to be numbered 420 and is related to cannabis, but is too recent to be the true source.

Others are under the impression that it’s related to Adolf Hitler’s birthday, which is April 20th. Or that it is somehow linked to Bob Marley’s death which occurred on the 11th of May 1981. Others have proposed that the 4th of April is the best day to plant cannabis, but this depends on numerous other factors such as which hemisphere you live on!

It All Started with Some High School Stoners

As interesting and plausible as some of the theories above may sound, they are not the true root of the 420 symbolism. The truth actually lies with 5 Californian high school students.

This group, nicknamed the ‘Waldos’, became aware of what may be an abandoned cannabis crop in a nearby forest. Some say they were even gifted a ‘treasure map’ by the grower himself but this was never confirmed. So they decided to venture out in search of the gold mine!

In preparation for their after school shenanigans, in the Autumn of 1971, they would remind each other throughout the school day to meet at 4:20 after extracurriculars. They would congregate at this time at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside of their school, which is why the original term they used was “420 Louis”. 

From there, they would jump in the car, light up a doobie and go in search of this mysterious crop. 

After many fruitless attempts, they eventually shortened the term to just “420” as a signal to meet up after school to hang out and have a puff or two. This allowed these high schoolers and many after them to talk about cannabis without those around them being the wiser. 

Three Waldos—(from left) Mark Gravitch, Dave Reddix and Steve Capper with their original 420 flag.

The Rock Band ‘Grateful Dead’ Played a Part

So how did a term used by a small group of high school stoners become a global phenomenon? Well, the rock band ‘Grateful Dead’ played a big role in this term reaching the masses. 

One of the ‘Waldos’ had an older brother who was friends with the bassist from the band, Phil Lesh. The ‘Waldos’ eventually found themselves hanging around the band and sharing their passion for cannabis. They started sharing the term ‘420’ backstage at shows while passing joints around. This term then became a part of their culture and began spreading around to their community and fans of the band. 

In December 1990, fans of the band started handing out flyers inviting people to smoke ‘420’ on April 20th, at 4:20. Here we see the term spreading through the subculture of the band, with one of the flyers ending up with Steve Bloom – a reporter for High Times at the time. The magazine then printed the flyer the next year and continued referencing the number, and thus 420 was well and truly born. It was this culture and these groups of people that birthed the concept of the community gathering on the same day, at the same time, to celebrate a stoner holiday. 

Today, this stoner holiday is celebrated worldwide and has become an international symbol of cannabis culture. This is a date and a time that no stoner will ever forget, regardless of how much herb they toke up. Now the next time you’re with some buddies having a puff at, or on 420 – you can appreciate the significance a little more. 

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[…] these needs with incredible support with people hosting book clubs, dinner parties and even massive 420 smoke outs – which I have both attended and hosted from the comfort of my […]