Myth Busting: 420 Edition

By David Jenison

The number 420 (pronounced four-twenty) is the not-so-secret code for cannabis consumption and culture. The commonly held belief is that 420 originally referred to a smoking time, 4:20pm in the afternoon, but today the most popular reference is April 20 (4/20), which is unofficially world cannabis day. Covering both bases, cannabis aficionados typically celebrate the 4/20 holiday by lighting up at 4:20pm, sometimes in large public gatherings.

Over the decades, countless theories postulated different 420 origins, but most people now believe it originated in 1971 with a group of teen hippies in the Bay Area. If true, this means 420 originally referred to a search for cannabis, not actually smoking the plant, though the meaning quickly evolved among the teens and their social connections.

Debunked 420 Myths

The original theory was that 420 was California police code or penal code for cannabis offenses. This later proved to be incorrect. In the penal code, 420 involves obstructing entry on public land, and the number stands for nothing in the police code. Likewise, the use of any drug, including cannabis, is 11350 in the California Health and Safety Code.

Another theory was that the cannabis plant contains 420 separate chemicals, per a handful of textbooks. Very few school textbooks get into detail about the chemical composition of the plant, and while a botany book might, the authors would likely know that the plant does not contain that many separate chemicals. Some even suggested that 420 refers to tea time in Holland, but even if the time was correct (it is not), it is still a stretch to suggest that tea time in Amsterdam inspired a code word 5,500 miles away in California.  

Some point to the music world. In 1966, Bob Dylan led off Blonde on Blonde with “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35” featuring the main chorus line, “Everybody must get stoned.” Some math nerds pointed out that 12 x 35 equals 420, but if the song were the inspiration, 1235 would have been the more logical code number. The same can be said about the April 1966 release of The Who’s My Generation, with the U.S. album cover showing Big Ben at 4:22pm. The association is too much of a stretch.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young do have a song titled “4+20” but the lyrics have nothing to do with cannabis. Others have suggested that April 20 is the date of Bob Marley’s death, but he passed on May 11, 1981, after 420 had already appeared on flyers. Less popular theories tie 420 to the passing of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, though none of the 27 Club members (artists who passed away at age 27) died on April 20. Some also claimed the Grateful Dead headquarters were located at 420 Ashbury and that Jerry Garcia died at 4:20 in 1995. Regarding the latter, the time was 4:23 a.m., and 420 was already in circulation by 1995. As far as the address, the Dead headquarters were at 710 Ashbury, a number that dabbers will certainly find ironic.

Another theory is that 420 refers to Albert Hofmann’s famous psychedelic experience on April 16, 1943. Per his lab notes, the Swiss scientist took lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) at 4:20pm as history’s first acid trip. Still, obscure notes regarding a different substance in an experiment that took place three decades earlier make the proposed connection sound more like a happy coincidence. There is also an 18th-century nursery rhyme called “Sing a Song of Sixpence” with the line "4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie,” and while this theory is fun, the old British rhyme has seemingly no connection to cannabis.

420 in Popular Culture

The not-so-secret code has repeatedly snuck into pop culture, presumably meant as an “Easter Egg” for insiders to discover. For example, one of the earliest pop-culture nods appeared in the 1982 comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which famously cast Sean Penn as a high school stoner. In the film, a pissed-off football player (portrayed by a young Forest Whitaker) demolished the opposing team, resulting in a final score of 42 to 0. Later, Oscar-nominated films like Pulp Fiction and Lost in Translation famously set on-screen clocks to 4:20pm. In the television series Mad Men, the agency had a major meeting with American Airlines in a plot line that stretched across several episodes. When the big day came, the camera zoomed in on a date book, and the presentation took place on April 20. Surely not a coincidence for a series that showed characters smoking cannabis in the Village a few episodes later. Even this week's season finale of 24: Legacy counted down its final seconds with the main character going into a room numbered 420. The number even pops into politics. In 2003, a California Senate Bill addressed the regulation of medical cannabis, and Governor Gray Davis signed the bill just days after losing a recall election. Brilliantly, an unknown clerk assigned the bill the following number: SB 420.

Where's Waldo?

The current consensus is that a group of five teenage Deadheads in San Rafael, California created the 420 code. The friends called themselves the Waldos after their hangout spot at a wall outside the school. The code word, created in 1971, referred to a 4:20pm meeting at San Rafael High School’s statue of French chemist Louis Pasteur, but the purpose of the meeting was not to smoke out. Rather, the group of high school friends heard about a cannabis crop abandoned by a Coast Guard service member in Point Reyes, a 71,000-acre park 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. The five teens, who even got ahold of a hand-drawn map, searched the national park several times.

"We were smoking a lot of weed at the time," said Waldo Dave Reddix in an interview. "Half the fun was just going looking for it."

The recovery operation was originally called 4:20 Louis, but the Waldos eventually shortened it to 4:20. The Waldos never found the crop, and 420 morphed into code to meet up at 4:20pm to smoke. Saying “420” in the high school hallways was obviously more discreet than saying, “You wanna get high after class?”

Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000, Waldo Steve Capper added, "It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like 'Do you have any?' or 'Do I look stoned?' Parents and teachers wouldn't know what we were talking about."

San Rafael was home to Grateful Dead Productions, and according to the Waldos, the five friends had Grateful Dead associations. Waldo Dave worked the shows, and his older brother managed a side band called Too Loose to Truck with David Crosby, Terry Haggerty and Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Likewise, Waldo Mark’s father was a hippie real estate broker in Marin County who helped Grateful Dead band members find homes. As part of the association, the Waldos attended shows and passed out flyers at concerts that included cannabis images and the number 420, which eventually led to the association on a local level. In 1990, a High Times writer learned about 420, and the publication further spread the code by incorporating it into editorial. More recently, High Times broke the story on the Waldos’ connection to 420.

All this said, another San Rafael group who called themselves The Bebes claim they actually created the code a year earlier in 1970. Per Brad “The Bebe” Bann, the Waldos and Bebes were friends, but “The Waldos were a group of guys I ordained.” In 2012, 420 Magazine made the case for the Bebes, who claimed the word originated in October 1970 when two friends looked at the clock and said, “It’s 4:20, time for bong loads.” After getting high, the friends did some audio recording that included the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Four score and 20 years ago.” The numbers seemed to roll off the tongue, and the Bebes started using it as a code word for smoking. The pro-Bebes argument also notes that Point Reyes is an hour from school, so if the group met at 4:20pm (an odd time at that), they might not reach the park until 5pm at the earliest. In terms of searching for the lost cannabis crop, that did not give the group much time before the sun went down, keeping in mind that it was autumn, not summer. Furthermore, other members of the Bebes back up Bann’s stories.

This alternative 420 theory might be true, but the Bebes lack verifiable evidence, while the Waldos have flyers, flags and postmarked letters, which gives the five friends the edge. Also, Bann said “Waldo” was actually an insulting name, like calling someone a Gomer, which kind of makes him sound like a dick.

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