Everybody knows 4:20 is the time to smoke pot. And everybody knows 4/20 is the international pot-smoking day. But not many people, not even the oldest and most ardent pot smokers, knows why or how the number 420 became linked to pot smoking.
There are a few old tales which describe how this national holiday, and that special time of the day, became so iconic. Here’s everything we know about how 4/20 became more than a mid-April day.
It Started With Some High School Kids
You know who does know a thing or two about this? Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana. The most accepted root of the high holiday starts with some high school kids in San Rafael, California, back in 1971. Sloman says the phrase started as “420 Louis,” meaning “at 4:20 [they’d] meet by the Louis Pasteur statue outside the high school” and get high.
It turns out one of these kids’ older brothers was friends with Grateful Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh. And the group—”they called themselves ‘Waldos,’ ” Sloman says—started getting high with the Grateful Dead at their rehearsal studio in San Rafael.
Around 1990, High Times magazine senior editor Steve Bloom saw a flyer at a Dead concert that “told the story of 420, and that was news to me,” he wrote in a copy of the magazine obtained by the Huffington Post. Bloom wrote that “420” was originally California police code for smoking pot.
But it turns out the story on the flyer was horseshit. Bloom says “after about five years,” the Waldos story emerged.
“A few of these Waldos surfaced and contacted High Times to set the record straight in 1997,” Sloman says. Which is “about five years” if you’re baked. So it checks out.
Some People Think Bob Dylan Has to Do With It
This one’s pretty simple. Bob Dylan’s got a song called “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” At some point, someone, presumably pretty stoned, was listening to ol’ Bob and realized that if you multiply 12 by 35, you get—you guessed it, 420.
Oh how nice this would be, to trace the high holiday back to one of the best artists to listen to while engaging in the devil’s lettuce. But alas, even though the song was recorded in 1966, well before the Waldos did their thing, it’s highly unlikely this is our one true source.
There’s a Theory About the Actual Plant, Too
This one’s a shut and closed case, too. Although it has been stated that there are “more than 400 chemical compounds” in a cannabis plant, no one ever clearly stated that that number is 420.
It’s Got Nothing to Do With the Law or the Lawmen
There are a couple of 420 theories having to do with the police and Congress, too. The first, referring to what police would utter over the radio should they see you buying a baggie, is incorrect. Unfortunately that radio code is for homicide.
The one about Congress? Well, it’s not that the two aren’t related. There is a bill in the California Senate numbered 420, but it’s named for the staple of cannabis culture, not because of it. The bill, which went through in 2003, was crucial to the birth of medical marijuana in California.
And Then There Are Just Some Batshit Ideas
The remaining theories around 420 are so wild we might as well not even go into detail. Some think it’s named after the day Bob Marley died, but he died on May 11. Some think it has something to do with Adolf Hitler’s birthday, but why the hell would that mean anything? (Even if it is his birthday.) Lastly, some stoned-off-their-ass person once said April 20 is the best day to plant marijuana, but that very clearly depends on where you’re planting it.
In the end, the only real way to trace it back is to those ambitious high school kids in San Rafael. They toked so we could rip. They lied to their parents so we could have an excuse once a day—and especially on April 20—to pull out all the stops and get as high as the lord above us.
So breathe deep folks, and remember, weed isn’t a bad thing. These states know what I’m talking about.