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Mythbusting 420: The Story Behind the Counterculture’s Favorite Number

The definition of the term “420” seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the hazy mists of time. You may have seen it referenced in the movie Pulp Fiction, or the California cannabis bill SB 420, or in Craigslist calls for “420-friendly” roommates. Some believe it has something to do the police code for cannabis arrest; most of us know it simply as a reference to cannabis consumption. But have you ever stopped to wonder how this came to be?

Rumors have ebbed and flowed over the years, most completely false, and some only partly true. Eventually, some facts came out in a Huffington Post report. Here’s what we know based on the most convincing evidence so far.

The Origins

The story begins in San Rafael, California, in the fall of 1971, with a group of San Rafael High School friends who called themselves the Waldos. One day, the Waldos set in search of a secret plot of cannabis plants whose cultivator could no longer tend to them. They agreed to meet outside school at 4:20 pm.

The search lasted several weeks. Day after day, the Waldos would pile into an old ’66 Chevy Impala and drive out to Point Reyes. They never actually found the patch. But they kept using the code word they’d used to remind each other of their mission.

So how did a private joke spread from a small circle of friends in California to become an international phenomenon?

The Global Takeover

As it happens, the Waldos regularly hung out with the Golden State’s kings of counterculture, the Grateful Dead. The term quickly spread through the Grateful Dead underground when the band took it on tour through the ‘70s and ‘80s. And when it got picked up by the High Times, one of the most influential publications to advocate for cannabis legalization, 420 went global.

At least, that’s how the Waldos tell it. One High Times reporter, Steve Bloom, believes a flyer he received at a 1990 Dead show may have been the catalyst (he reported the find in 1991). But all who have studied the origins of 420 agree that the Waldos, who revealed their identities to The Huffington Post in 2012, get most of the credit. Nobody else has been able to prove uses of 420 that predate 1971.

420 Day 

Whether through Bloom or the Grateful Dead, High Times magazine was what really started to give 420 momentum. Then-editor Steven Hager told HuffPost he had incorporated the term into everything, including events like the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup. And so April 20 was born as a major symbol of counterculture all over the world.

Cannabis legalization activists hail this unofficial international holiday as a protest against prohibition and criminalization. It’s the biggest single day to celebrate the cannabis culture as an important community, rallying hundreds of thousands of people together to stand for legalization, fairness, and freedom. Through 420, the cannabis movement has helped to reshape policy, shed light on the racial war on drugs, and highlight the medical benefits of cannabis where it’s still considered an illicit substance.

In the medical cannabis community, April 20th is also a good time to get discounts on products.

You can learn more about the Waldos, who now enjoy modest fame, in this Huffington Post story first published in 2009. And in case you’re interested, High Times helpfully provides a countdown to 4/20 here.

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