If you’re high right now, here’s a question that might cause your brain to short-circuit: Why exactly do we associate pot with 4/20? Is it the birthday of some mythological cannabis deity? Does it have something to do with the end of the semester for college kids? Or are its founders just so stoned we’ll never know?
Currently, there exists one prevailing theory on its origins, but you should know in advance, it relies on personal accounts (with some pretty convincing facts, however).
The most commonly held belief surrounding the legend of “4/20″ is that it existed as a police code; specifically, “420″ was used as a term to indicate “Cannabis smoking in progress” among cops in San Rafael, California. The tale is actually partially true, HuffPost wrote.
While there was no 420 code, a group of high school students (nick-named “The Waldos”) in San Rafael are credited with having first used the term, all the way back in 1971. HuffPost interviewed a few of the original Waldos in their piece about how 4/20 came to be:
The Waldos’ story goes like this: One day in the fall of 1971 — harvest time — the Waldos got word of a Coast Guard service member, Gary Newman, who could no longer tend his plot of marijuana plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. A treasure map in hand, the Waldos decided to pluck some of the free bud.
The Waldos, who were all athletes, agreed to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside the school at 4:20 p.m., after practice, to begin the hunt.
‘We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis,’ Capper, 57, says.
As proof, the Waldos offer up a high school newspaper clipping and several postmarked letters, many of which make 4/20 references—and while it’s easy to argue that doesn’t mean they personally coined the term, there isn’t recorded use of “4/20″ prior to 1971. Its eventual spread to the mainstream, and why you and I use it now, can be attributed to the underground Deadhead scene.
The Grateful Dead get involved (of course)
In the 1970s, The Grateful Dead moved to the Marin County Hills, a short distance from San Rafael, and several of the Waldos were well-connected to the group: one Waldo’s father handled their real estate and another Waldo worked as a roadie for the band. While we may likely never know how the band itself picked up on the term, it’s theorized the Waldos may have dropped it into conversations.
“There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re using those phrases,” Steve Capper, one of the Waldos, told Huffington Post. “When somebody passes a joint or something—‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.”
The term continued to popularize throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s among Deadhead groups. By the ‘90s, the High Times had started using 4/20 and published a Grateful Dead flyer referencing the cannabis analogy, helping make the number a nationally recognized pot-related term. And eventually, the Waldos stepped forward to claim their rightful place in stoner history with the High Times, too.
So there we have it—a very possible Big Bang theory for 4/20. And while there are other existing theories (hotly contested by the Waldos), this one certainly comes with a pretty convincing backstory. Sadly, the Waldos aren’t getting any residuals for coining the term, but we can all smoke a joint today in their honor.
This article was originally published in April 2019 and updated on April 20, 2021 to align with current Lifehacker style.