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4/20: The Unlikely Ascent of Cannabis Culture’s Favorite Day

April 12, 2021

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the term 420, which represents an all-important day not only to marijuana enthusiasts who enjoy a bit of tradition, but also to the worldwide legalization movement that has made incredible strides over the past five decades. This is thanks in large part to the solidarity that the counterculture holiday has inspired.

In honor of its semicentennial, we’re taking a look back at the humble origins of the day, from a code word shared by five high school friends in San Rafael, California, to an internationally recognized day of protest and celebration, all in the name of cannabis consumption.

The Waldos and Their Treasure Map

The real origin of the term 420 seems like something lifted from a zany stoner comedy that’s somewhere between Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and The Goonies. But it’s no Hollywood tall tale; it’s the real authentic truth, and the Grateful Dead can back it up.

It all started in 1971 at San Rafael High School in Marin County, California, when five pot-loving friends who called themselves the Waldos (due to their penchant for hanging around at a wall just outside of the school) somehow got their hands on a treasure map that supposedly pointed them towards an abandoned cannabis crop tucked away somewhere within the nearby Point Reyes Forest.

With marijuana still widely illegal (and considered to be taboo by the general public), the Waldos needed to devise a covert way to discuss plans for their continued hunt for the elusive crop. This led to the development of the code term “4:20-Louis” which was a combination of the time and place of their weekly clandestine rendezvous: 4:20 pm at the statue of famed vaccine developer, Louis Pasteur, erected outside of the school.

Perhaps Pasteur would have been proud to know that his monument was the meeting place of five young men resolute in their pursuit of alternative medicinal solutions, but the Waldos were surrounded by squares and they couldn’t let anyone who wasn’t hip to the hunt know of their plans. Thus, an organic abbreviation of their original codename, 420 was born.

A Little Help from the Dead

The 420 codename should realistically have remained in the sole possession of the Waldos, but as it turned out, the five high school buddies had friends in high places who managed to bring the term to the masses. Those friends? One of cannabis culture’s all-time champions: The Grateful Dead.

The Waldos spent enough time hanging with the Dead to pass along the term 420—which by this point had simply become their code for toking up. Slowly but surely, it was passed along to the entire community of Deadheads, eventually finding its way onto a flyer that came into the hands of High Times reporter, Steven Bloom, at an Oakland, California Dead show in 1990.

Bloom published the flyer, which contained false information about 420 originating from the police code for pot-smoking in progress, which prompted the Waldos to step forward to set the record straight. From there, 420 became something greater and more significant than the five treasure-hunting, pot-loving high school pals could ever have imagined.

4/20 Today

Ever since the High Times publication, 420 has become an internationally recognized term among cannabis enthusiasts, and 4/20 has become an internationally celebrated counterculture holiday. Many celebrate recreationally, but others have used the widespread recognition as a platform for the decriminalization and legalization movements that have gained so much ground since those long-ago rendezvous at the Louis Pasteur memorial.

How much have the annual rallying cries heard on 4/20 contributed to the cause? Well, California’s medical marijuana bill was entitled SB 420. That’s no coincidence.

The Waldos may not have found their treasure, but the codename they came up with all those years ago has made a considerable contribution to like-minded souls across the globe being able to gain access to their own green-budded bounties.

Happy 4/20 to all — and especially to The Waldos.