A Brief History: The REAL Story Behind 4:20

A Bob Dylan song? The police code for cannabis? Tea time in Amsterdam? Over the years, many myths have circulated about the origin of 420. But it wasn’t until 1990 at a Grateful Dead concert that the clouds (of smoke) started to clear and the truth began to surface. 

So the story goes, it was December 1990 in Oakland, California and Steven Bloom was wandering through a parking lot full of Deadheads. Someone hands him a yellow flyer that read, “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” This was the first time Bloom, then a reporter for High Times magazine, had ever heard the term. Turning the flyer over, Bloom found a short paragraph about the supposed origin of 420. It read, “420 started somewhere in San Rafael, California in the late ‘70s. It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress. After local heads heard of the police call, they started using the expression 420 when referring to herb – Let’s Go 420, dude!” Six months later, Bloom reported that very story in the May 1991 issue of High Times. We would come to find out, however, that the flyer’s story was only partly true. 

Cut to 1997 when a group guys from California contact High Times to set the record straight. Back in the early ‘70s these five men attended San Rafael High School and called themselves “The Waldos.” Armed with dated and post-marked letters including the term and their very own 420 flag from the era, they possess the only physical evidence that pre-dates the first known uses of 420. So, how did they come up with it? The story starts with a pot plant, of course. 

In the fall 1971, the five Waldos learn of a service member from the Coast Guard that has abandoned a plot of marijuana plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. With a veritable treasure map in hand, they set out to find them. But they had to wait for practice to finish after school before they could meet up. And what time did they meet? 4:20pm, of course! Each day they would pile in the back of one of the Waldos’ ’66 Chevy, smoke up and head out to hunt their treasure. Weeks went by and they never managed to find the plants. What they had found, however, was useful term for weed that they could shout across classrooms at school and in front of their parents. 

Around that same time, the Grateful Dead settled into the Marin County hills, literal blocks away from the boys’ high school. So close to each other, the worlds of the Waldos and the Dead soon began to meet. One of the boys’ fathers became the real estate manager for the Dead. Another’s brother started to hang out with bassist Phil Lesh. It wasn’t long before the Waldos were tagging along to Dead rehearsals and parties. Running around backstage, they would smoke up, referring to it as 420. It wasn’t long before the band members were referring to weed as 420 and the phrase began to spread through the Dead community. 

Over the next several decades, the Grateful Dead would tour the world while playing hundreds of shows each year. One December evening in 1990, a High Times reporter is walking across the parking lot, about to attend a Dead show when he is handed a yellow flyer and discovers 420 for the very first time. He publishes his discovery in the magazine which takes the term global. Since then festivals and celebrations have taken the world over every April 20th. Almost another two decades later the term 420 is accepted into the Oxford Dictionary of English in 2017, with the Waldos’ story cited as historic fact.

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