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What Is 420? Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday and Its History

By April 20, 2018 No Comments

It’s almost that time of year again. The time where stoners across the world celebrate the highest of holi-daze. But what is 420?

If you’ve been living under a moon rock you might be saying to yourself, “What is 420? I don’t get what everybody’s talking about.”

Or maybe you’re like many people who know that April 20th is a major holiday for marijuana consumers but you’ve heard all kinds of crazy origin stories for how it came to be. Now you want to sift through the smoke and find the nugget of truth.

Well, have no fear! We’ve got all the answers for you.

Keep reading to learn all about the dank history of 420.

what is 420

what is 420

What is 420?

More than just a date on the calendar, 420 is a symbol to weed lovers everywhere that reminds them of how important cannabis is in their lives. It’s become a term people use to identify with a culture and connect with others across the world.

It’s become common practice among both recreational and medical marijuana users to take a daily 420 break. Like a call for high happy hour, pot lovers stop what they’re doing and light up in honor of the moment.

As cannabis continues to grow more accepted around the world, the term 420 has become more ubiquitous.

For example, Sweetwater, an Atlanta-based brewing company, sells a 420 Pale Ale. And there are companies that offer 420 tours in major cities. If you look closely enough, you’ll see evidence of its growing popularity everywhere.

From its beginnings as a localized underground slang term to its widespread acceptance in the mainstream, the answer to the question of what is 420 continues to take on new meanings.

How Did We Get the Term “420”?

If you ask 10 people about the origin of what is 420, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.

But there is good evidence that the term was actually coined in Northern California in the early 1970s by a group of pot smoking high school kids. More on them in a bit.

But first, let’s clear up some of the misconceptions about how the term 420 came to be synonymous with the cannabis community.

Low-Grade Stories

There are several popular stories of what is 420 that sound plausible but aren’t actually true. Among the most common is the notion that 420 is a penal code in the state of California signifying marijuana use.

It’s time to bust this myth. So what is 420 in the California Penal System? In truth, it refers to obstructing entry on public land. It’s got nothing to do with marijuana at all.

There’s actually no penal code that uses 420 in reference to marijuana. But this concept probably caught on because it adds a sense of credibility to weed being a part of the counterculture.

It allows cannabis consumers to co-opt the meaning of this term from the authorities and find power in it. No wonder it’s a popular idea. Too bad it’s not true.

Other popular “what is 420” stories involve very noteworthy smokers. Rumor had it that the term came as a tribute to the death anniversaries of either Bob Markey or Jimi Hendrix.

And though both of these musical icons and marijuana advocates left a lasting mark on the world, neither of them died on April 20. This is another urban legend ready to be put to rest.

This particular date is important to the cannabis culture, but that came to be only after the term 420 was established. And perhaps that’s for the best because there are a coupl ofe significantly awful events in human history associated with the 20th of April.

The horrific Columbine High School shooting happened on April 20th. It’s also the birthday of Adolf Hitler, arguably the worst human to ever live.

Hopefully, as attitudes on marijuana continue to brighten, the new meaning of what is 420 will continue to overshadow these tragic events. It would be amazing for the world if this date were only associated with happiness, healing, and passing the peace pipe.

The Waldos

So if it’s not a date or a penal code, what is 420?

The true origins of the term come from the minds of teenagers in high school in the 1970s. A group of five friends from San Rafael High School in Northern California came up with the phrase to as a secret code between themselves.

They called themselves the Waldos because, as the story goes, they used to hang out by a wall. These friends — products of the fun-loving Hippie era — made a pact to meet at a statue of chemist Louis Pasteur at 4:20 pm for an adventure to find a hidden marijuana grow.

In the Fall of 1971, the five teenagers came into possession of a hand-drawn map allegedly pointing to the location of a plot of marijuana plants in Point Reyes, an area just northwest of San Francisco. The plot was supposed to be near the Coast Guard station on the peninsula.

Because some of them had afterschool sports and activities, 4:20 was simply the soonest time they could get together. They would meet, smoke, and hunt for this elusive field they never actually found.

Half the fun for the boys was in searching for the treasure, spending time together, and enjoying good weed.

As time passed, they adopted the term “420 Louis” as shorthand for their agenda. Their parents and teachers were unaware of the meaning, so they could hide their activities in plain sight.

Eventually, the Waldos dropped the “Louis” from their slang and 420 was officially born. The term soon spread to the Waldos’ friends and acquaintances who undoubtedly asked them, “What is 420?”

Within no time a new subculture was being defined. But it would need some help from an influential source to truly catch fire.

Though there are a lot of stories about how 420 came to be, no credible sources have emerged that predate the Waldos’ account. All the evidence we have points to these five friends not only telling the truth but being the forefathers of one of the most important phrases in cannabis culture.

The Grateful Dead Spread the News

So how did 420 go from the lingo of kids on a treasure hunt to being a term accepted throughout the world? The answer lies in the Waldos’ random connection to one of the biggest rock bands of all time.

Mark Gravitch was one of the original Waldos. His father managed real estate for the Grateful Dead.

As if that wasn’t enough, another of the Waldos, Dave Reddix, had a brother who managed a Grateful Dead cover band and was friends with the Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh.

The Waldos loved smoking weed and listening to music, and they often knew where the Grateful Dead were practicing. The band has a rehearsal space in San Rafael. So the boys made the regular practice to seek out the band.

They would smoke joints and listen to them practice, eventually working their way into the band’s confidence. Dave and his brother accompanied the band on a summer tour as roadies and passed on their newfound code.

It wasn’t long before the idea of what is 420 permeated the band’s lingo, too.

Now the term had the spark it needed to catch on like wildfire. The Grateful Dead spread it to their fans, known as Deadheads.

In 1990, the Grateful Dead explained what is 420 on a concert flyer. High Times magazine editor Steve Bloom saw it and spread it amongst his colleagues.

As the High Times staff began using it in their stories and conversations, 420 went from a local slang to a global phenomenon.

420 Celebrations Around the World

Now we know where 420 came from, but what is 420 today?

In addition to a way to talk about weed, 420 has become an incredibly popular holiday celebrated throughout the world. Even in places that still officially frown on public consumption of cannabis, April 20th has taken on a life of its own.

Major cities like Denver and San Francisco, near where it all began, mark the day with festivals and relaxed law enforcement. Musicians, comedians, and all manner of entertainers perform in front of large crowds happy to publically gather in celebration of marijuana.

420 has become National Weed Day. Mark your calendar and plan your own celebration. Curious about some of the biggest 420 events happening? Check out one these renowned pot parties going down throughout the world.

420 in the Park – San Francisco

Even though recreational marijuana is legal throughout California there are rules against smoking in Golden Gate Park. Well on this holiday those rules are lifted, just like all the pot smokers gathering for a good time.

If you’re in the Bay Area and want to celebrate 420 near the place the Waldos first gave us the term, head to the park for a worry-free afternoon. You’ll be in some great company with fellow cannabis enthusiasts.

Elite Cup 420 Festival – Amsterdam

One of the most important cities in cannabis culture, Amsterdam boasts its own major celebration. What is 420 without a little cannabis competition?

The Elite Cup 420 Festival brings together people from all over the world to enjoy delicious infused food, live music and fierce competition judging amazing strains of cannabis.

This annual event usually begins a few days before 420. So make a full trip of it and celebrate in style.

The 420 Rally – Denver

The state of Colorado has long been on the forefront of the marijuana legalization movement in America. It’s no wonder that Denver hosts several major events to kick off 420.

One of the best that they offer is the 420 Rally, a free festival featuring national headlining musicians, great food, and, of course, tons of great weed. Last year 2 Chainz headlined the main show.

If you’re planning on spending 420 in Denver, allow plenty of time to explore. In addition to the rally, the city is hosting all kinds of events, from pot-themed burlesque shows to special tours.

London 420 Rally

London’s famed Hyde Park is the backdrop for one of the biggest 420 celebrations in England. Unlike its counterpart in Denver, however, Londoners gather in the park to protest the fact that public consumption is still illegal there.

Still, it’s a great place to connect, share herb, and spread awareness. This event taps into the sense of community and activism often found among cannabis consumers.

With so many people who’ve benefitted medically and socially from cannabis, there’s always a reason to gather in support of greater freedom.

National Cannabis Festival – Washington, D.C.

Despite the U.S. federal government’s current anti-marijuana stance, the nation’s capital remains friendly to cannabis consumers. Washington D.C is one of the many parts of the country that permits recreational and medical marijuana.

Each year, the territory celebrates 420 with a major festival. It features marquis acts and entertainment as well as educational sessions and opportunities to buy cool merchandise.

If you’re planning a trip to D.C., consider scheduling it around April 20, so you can learn all about and participate in cannabis history as well as American history.

Celebrate the Future of Cannabis

So what is 420?

It’s a holiday. A code word and a way of life.

Cannabis consumers, advocates, and cultivators use the term to communicate with each other. Many take time out of their day when the clock reads 4:20 to celebrate their freedom or resist government prohibition. And every April, it’s a worldwide day of recognition.

Even opponents of marijuana recognize the term and use it to try to rally support for their opposition.

What started as a way for teenage boys to speak in code about meeting to get high has grown into one of the most recognizable elements of subculture. And with each passing day and new community that relaxes laws governing marijuana, that subculture continues to shift to the mainstream.

The idea of who smokes pot continues to shift as more people recognize the medical benefits and financial opportunities within the industry. Cannabis users aren’t just stereotyped as dirty hippies anymore. Many professionals and productive members of society are cannabis’ biggest advocates.

Educate yourself about all many benefits of cannabis as well as the changing legal landscape. Our blog is full of valuable information to keep you informed.

If you’re in the cannabis industry or looking for ways to break into it, consider speaking to an expert consultant. We can help you with everything from licensing to facility design to best practices for your dispensary.

Contact us today to start a conversation.



Greg is a Quantum 9 writer that focuses on the medical benefits of medical cannabis.

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