420 – How Counterculture Became Pop Culture

For my generation, the term 420 has always just sort of…existed. We weren’t the ones who coined it; we just perpetuated it and accepted it as synonymous with weed. Not to say we didn’t question its origins; 420 itself was swirled in a shroud of smoky rumors, draped in urban legend. Perhaps I am exaggerating the narrative just a bit but what’s a good story without a little hyperbole? 

So, then what were some of the stories about how 420 had come to have this inextricable connection to the Devil’s lettuce? It had always been suggested that the police call in California for a disturbance involving weed would be referred to as “420 in progress” over the radio. Seems plausible. If that WAS the code used by law enforcement and we, in effect, took it back well that would be stickin’ it to the man, as it were. In as much as we hoped this one were true, In the United States, most police use 10 codes, developed in the 1940’s by the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APC). For example, “10-4, good buddy” means “yes, friend” and within this system, there is no 4 that isn’t proceeded by the number 10. Debunking mission completed, that’s a 10-24.

Another hot rumor claims the term came about because of Hitler’s birthday. While it is true that he was born on April 20, 1889 it is unlikely that someone with a fondness for Mary Jane would want to name their beloved herb after that guy. In fact, it might be suggested that someone with an agenda of continuing to vilify weed might want to lump them into the same category, when one has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

I am sure by now you are curious about where 420 actually comes from and trust me, I’m getting there, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a couple more rumors.  Some believe it’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana but it has since been proven that there are over 500 chemicals in grass and only about 70 are considered to be endemic to only marijuana. Others think that it is teatime in Holland or that it is based on Bob Dylan’s song “Everybody must get stoned” line from his hit “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35 because 12 multiplied by 35 certainly equals 420. All great theories; all wrong, wrong, wrong.  As it goes, the real story is slightly stranger than fiction.

It all began back in 1971 at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California with 5 dudes, some weed and treasure map. Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz and Mark Gravich were blissfully unaware of how their need for weed was about to impact the counterculture forever. Having been given a map to an abandoned grow stash, the group also known as the Waldos, agreed to meet in front of the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 pm to begin their quest. Back then they would pass each other in the hall and say “420 Louis” to confirm the rendezvous but would later admit to dropping the Louis. The stash was never discovered, but a connection to the Grateful Dead was about to be the catalyst that 420 needed to get plucked from obscurity.

Mark Gravich’s father had helped the band find their rehearsal space and Dave Reddix’s brother had managed a couple of the bassist, Phil Lesh’s side projects and this got the Waldos on the guest list, automatically.  Hearing the guys refer to smoking weed as 420, The Grateful Dead, and all of their associated acts, also began using the term 420 to refer to, well, reefer. Due to the nature of the fan base, 420 became widely used and spread quickly amongst the stoner culture. 

So, although it never took off like wildfire even into the late 80’s, 420 was still being used by weed smokers, but it was primarily “passed along from stoner to stoner as a completely underground grassroots phenomenon,” according to The High Times. The truth is, this story wouldn’t quite be this story if it weren’t for High Times Magazine. In 1998 they published an article debunking the California police code theory and named the Waldos the true originators of the term and have since gone on to use the term throughout the publication further adding to its popularity.

On April 20th, 1995, the Cannabis Action Network hosted the first annual 4/20 Ball at Maritime Hall in San Francisco, California, from 4:20pm-4:20am. It is one of the earliest known instances of an organized and recurring event in observance of 420. This could even be how the number 420 evolved to include the date April 20th. Now, you can find people celebrating this unofficial holiday in major cities in Canada, US and Australia and using the mainstream popularity of the term 420 to bring awareness to the unfairness of public policy when it comes to restrictions of its use and its criminalization.

There ya have it, a story of how 5 guys, a hidden treasure, and some weed created an obscure reference in a counterculture at a time when the war on drugs was just beginning and eventually turned it into the pop culture reference we use today.

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