Why is Marijuana Called 420? [The Moniker Explained]

Why the number 420 is associated with weed


According to Jonathan Green, a ‘slang’ scholar, there are at least 1,200 slang terms for marijuana, and several hundred more to describe being stoned. One of the main reasons why there are so many terms is because of weed’s long history of being illegal. Those who used it obviously didn’t want to get caught so they coined specific terms which meant they could effectively speak in code.

Each time the authorities learned the latest term, a new one was invented. That’s why there are some weird and wonderful slang words for cannabis including:

  • Houdini: Because users escape reality.
  • Ditch Weed: Low-THC Mary Jane that grows on the side of the road.
  • The Kind: Also known as ‘da kine’ this term refers to high-quality weed.
  • Catnip: Fake or inferior cannabis.
  • Nixon: Low-grade weed sold as top-shelf marijuana. For those who are passionate about cannabis; however, the most important marijuana slang term is ‘420’. It is so ingrained in weed culture that it is now the official day of cannabis!

The Origins of 4/20 Day

On April 20 every year, cannabis lovers gather to showcase their passion for pot. Known to some as the ‘Christmas of weed,’ 4/20 day involves parties and celebrations in certain American cities. In Denver, ‘420 on the Block’ has grown into a three-day festival involving music and marijuana. It attracts over 15,000 people annually, and the figure is swelling each year.

Even in London, England, where weed is not legal, over a thousand people gather at Hyde Park to celebrate 4/20 day each year. Of course, they have to be careful not to use pot in public or else they will be arrested. There are a host of myths surrounding the reason why 420 became such a big deal in the marijuana world, but one story stands out as being truer than the others.

The story begins at San Rafael High School in California’s Marin County in 1971. Five high school students, known as ‘the Waldos’, started a routine where they gathered in front of a Louis Pasteur statue to smoke weed. The group consisted of Jeffrey Noel, Mark Gravich, Larry Schwartz, Steve Capper, and Dave Reddix.

In an interview with High Times, Capper explained how the group of teenagers would sit on the wall of their high school and taunt people. They mocked cheerleaders and the so-called ‘greasers’ with their fast cars. However, the group enjoyed stand-up comedy, the Marx Brothers, and marijuana more than anything else.

According to the story, a friend of the group gave them a ‘treasure map’ which pointed to a secret marijuana patch near Point Reyes Peninsula. The friend’s brother was the grower, so in theory, the Waldos had easy access to weed – not an easy feat in the early 1970s. However, Reddix admits that they never found the plot. School finished at 3:10 pm but the guys had after-school activities that lasted around an hour.

As a result, they agree to meet in front of the Pasteur statue at precisely 4:20 pm to smoke the weed. During school, the friends would greet one another by saying “420 Louis”, a reminder to meet at the statue for a smoking session at 4:20 pm.

The 420 Code Spreads

Although the Waldos were fans of New Riders of the Purple Sage, Reddix got a job as a roadie for Phil Lesh, the famous bass guitar player for the Grateful Dead. Capper isn’t entirely sure how it happened, but the term ‘420’ quickly spread in the ‘Deadhead’ (nickname for obsessive fans of the Grateful Dead) community.

It is alleged that in December 1990, Oakland-based Deadheads passed out flyers telling people to smoke ‘420’ at 4:20 pm on April 20 of the following year. At some point, a reporter from High Times, Steve Bloom, received the flyer which was published by the magazine in 1991. Bloom didn’t take credit for the expression and in 1998, High Times published an article stating that the Waldos ‘invented’ the term.

420 Myths

In the end, the story behind 420 day is fairly straightforward, but that hasn’t stopped people from making absurd connections. One of the most bizarre was the suggestion that 420 relates to Adolf Hitler’s birthday since the evil dictator was born on April 20. There is no evidence that he ever used marijuana.

A couple of more reasonable explanations relate to the law. There was a rumor that ‘420’ was the radio call code used by the San Rafael Police Department to describe marijuana smoking in progress. The police department denies that such a code ever existed. Others suggest that 420 was the penal code for cannabis use, but again, that isn’t true.

There is a California Senate Bill 420 that relates to medical marijuana use, but that was named after the original 420 code.

420 in Pop Culture

Once the term spread, it became an unstoppable juggernaut. Anyone who has ever watched Pulp Fiction might recall that several of the clocks in the movie are set to 4:20. In the Hot Tub Time Machine, the hotel room’s number is 420. Of course, it could merely be a case of cannabis users paying more attention to instances where they see the number. In Colorado, the Interstate-70 highway’s 420-mile marker has been replaced by a 419.99-mile sign because the 420-mile sign keeps getting stolen!

Although the Waldos did not make any money from inventing the term ‘420’, each of the group has found success in life. Capper runs a specialty lending institution, although he was scammed by Bernie Madoff. Reddix works as a credit analyst, and Capper is his boss!

According to Capper, the other members of the group have also forged decent careers. It is somewhat reassuring to know that the Waldos keep in touch. One works in the printing and graphics niche, another is head of a division in a roofing and gutter firm, while the other works as head of marketing for a Napa Valley winery.

As a business owner, Capper must remain focused, so he seldom smokes weed anymore. However, hundreds of thousands of people around the world do so on April 20, thanks to the five Waldos. So at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter where the expression came from – it exists, and it’s only going to get more popular.