The story behind the code “420” has always swirled with a bit of mystery, but the number’s purpose has never been up for debate. At that magical time– and on that one, special day– marijuana enthusiasts around the globe unite in the ceremony of pot, undertaking a ritual that has become sacred within the pot-smoking community. But is April 20, the day with the best 420 deals and events, what it once was?
The most widely accepted version of 420’s origins is one that originated in San Rafael, California, in 1971. Six friends, led by the Waldo brothers, met at 4:20PM next to a discreetly placed statue in their high school’s courtyard to get high before going on an adventure. Their mission was to find a rumored patch of marijuana plants, led only by a hand-me-down treasure map and their own eagerness to discover something so shrouded in legend and secrecy. The boys never did find that marijuana patch, but they did continue to reference their hobby by the time at which they met on that day: 4:20. Every year, on 4/20, they threw a party where at 4:20 PM a ceremonial toke would be taken.
The number became legendary in their own, small corner of the world; but its origins would be lost for almost 20 years before the Waldos eventually came forward to tell their story.
The 420 Holiday – How it Came to Be
In those two decades, however, the number 420 remained– and spread. Other origin stories developed, citing everything from police code for “marijuana smoking in progress” to a secret message in Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35.” While most of the theories were eventually abandoned in favor of the Waldo’s story, it’s hard to miss the thread that had begun to form between all of them, including the truth.
That connector was the simple idea of a code, a clandestine message to be passed between stoners in secret as they pursued a pastime that was disallowed to see the light of day.
Eventually the number became a rally cry, a symbol of defiance in a time when smoking marijuana was viewed with the same distaste as shooting heroin or smoking crack.
Ultimately, it became ceremonial– almost religious. 4:20 was the one time of day when you could light up in the company of all the other stoners, the secret keepers, in an act of community and sanctity that spread around the world. The 420 holiday became a day of celebration, a time for marijuana lovers to gather and emerge in united defiance like witches convening under a full moon.
Through the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the forbidden nature of the “stoner holiday” remained intact, as each 4/20 brought with it the promise of festivals, celebrations, mobilization efforts, legalization conversations, and a single day out of 365 where a person might– just might– be able to speak openly about their marijuana habits.
The swirling excitement around the holiday seemed to stem from the underground nature of the activity itself, and the purpose of most 4/20 events was a simple one: to talk about legislation, mobilize for legalization, and make our voices heard.
Today, however, the pot-smoking community is no longer underground. As marijuana becomes recreationally legal in more and more states, the holiday seems to lie in the balance. Without the need for defiance, is there anything left to celebrate? If we’re no longer fighting for legalization, is there any need to convene? Is 420 the holiday it once was?
To answer, I sat down with a few marijuana activists from across the United States and Canada to get a read on how they foresee the holiday’s future. I posed each the following question:
“4/20 has long been known as a holiday where stoners commune, talk about policy, fight for improved legislation, and mobilize. With legalization happening in so many states and the movement as a whole gaining traction across North America, does anyone still care about 4/20”
Rick, Toronto, Canada
“Does anyone care about the pride parade? Does anyone care about the women’s day parade? [We’re] a minority that needs representation, so yes, it matters. But it’s not just for recreational- there is a whole industry behind hemp that matters, that is seen as mostly disruptive…to existing industries. Paper, clothing, medicine, etc– as long as it’s illegal all of those opportunities are behind bars.”
Gemma, Atlanta, Georgia
“I think so. There is still a lot of work needing to be done towards legalisation, and just because it’s legal in some places doesn’t mean you give up on a holiday. [In the future you can] use it as a day to remember how far your locality has come, and help fight for those that don’t have that freedom.”
Nick, Long Island, New York
“In spite of the legalization, I feel there is still a stigma around weed that differs from, say, alcohol. One that, even if or when all states legalize it, will still persist from the memories of illegality of that will remain the minds of the older generations. As a result, I feel 4/20 helps people find a sense of community and acceptance.”
Additionally, weed smokers and smokers while high tend, in my experience, to be a little more introverted by nature. Having a day such as this may help people connect with others in ways that they might otherwise struggle to.”
“I always thought the 4/20 date was kind of silly. I think it has such a weird connotation associated with it, that it’s hard to take it seriously. I mean, I get it. It’s an easy date to plan things around and it has the obvious weed connection, but I don’t think it’s taken very seriously, to begin with.
If you’re going to influence change and help shift an opinion, maybe it shouldn’t be focused on a date that no one really understands the origin of. Besides being a smoker’s holiday, it just has so many misconceptions and other ‘facts’ associated with its origin– Hitler’s birthday being the obvious one.
Not to say I have something better in mind, but as a heavy smoker and supporter of legalization, I think it’s a silly date, especially when you’re trying to be serious about your actions and legislation.”
“Do you think we still have far to go?” I pressed.
“I think we have a bit to go still, but I think it’s inevitable. That said, I think we’ll need an administration that supports it. I can’t see it becoming legalized at a federal level until we have an honest look at the way we currently categorize drugs and stop pretending like weed is in the same category as heroin (Schedule I).”
“I think we’ll see it legalized by a growing number of states, and the supreme court will eventually weigh in on it. I think the FDA is too stubborn to take it seriously. I see many states curious about what’s going on in Colorado and Washington, but scared to take the full leap. My home state of PA, for example, is in the process of implementing medical, but we’re also a state where liquor blue laws are just starting to become relaxed, thanks to a great governor, so things will progress slowly– although Philly has decriminalized weed, which is another great step in the right direction.”
“Overall, I think we’ll see a national level of legalization within the next decade, and an increased number of individual states legalizing it to get us there. People just want to smoke a joint in peace, legally, and at a decent price.”
So what’s the takeaway? It seems that within the pot-smoking community, 4/20 will hold its significance, even past the time when legalization becomes ubiquitous. Regardless of the need for mobilization, the community is strongly 4/20-centric thanks to the sense of community and tradition. So is 420 the holiday it once was? The answer is a clear, resounding, “yes.”