The Evolution of 420

celebrating 420 with birthday candles

Marijuana is gaining traction fast with recent strides in decriminalization, legalization, and an ever-increasing media presence. With cannabis being such a hot subject in the news right now, it makes sense that more and more people are exposed to an entirely new culture that they either didn't know existed or simply didn't care.

Check out the Leafbuyer 420 Guide to 420 events and 420 cannabis deals in your state!

With this new exposure comes an onslaught of frequently asked questions, a common one being: "what is 420?" It's a good question and one that doesn't really have a direct answer. Knowing the answer to the what is 420 question means knowing its origin, how it became mainstream, and how popularity changed its meaning. This magical number for marijuana is more than an inside joke for stoners; 420 is a symbol that connects everyone who loves cannabis and culture of cannabis.

The Origins of 420

holding a marijuana leaf among marijuana plants

Many have tried to pinpoint the exact origin of the legend of 420, but some amount of confusion and mystery still surrounds the number's past. The theory that holds up the most against speculation is that of the Waldos. The tale of the Waldos dates all the way back to the 1970s and takes place in a well-to-do county in California called Marin. According to legend, five teens who called themselves the Waldos met at around 4:20 pm to smoke a daily joint after school. They reportedly used 420 as a code word for smoking, which worked when only the five of them knew the now-popular term. But that story begs the question: how did a handful of kids manage to start the worldwide trend of 420? That brings us to the Grateful Dead, the band that is rumored to have popularized 420 after picking it up from a roadie who also happened to be one of the five members of the Waldos.

Not everyone believes the Waldos theory as gospel, however. Other wacky theories speculate that police codes for weed or event advertisements were, in fact, the true origin of the modern-day 420. It's up to you to decide which story you believe! We may never know with 100 percent certainty how 420 came to be. And with a bunch of stoners as our historians, that really doesn't come as a huge surprise. The past of 420 may seem hazy, but the answer to 'what is 420?' is much more clear.

What is 420 Now?

marijuana flag at 420 rally
Editorial credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com
While 420 may have started out as a crafty code word for smoke-o'clock, it can no longer be used that way. Too many people, non-stoners included, recognize the meaning of the term. So, what is 420 if not a secret code? Much like the weed leaf, 420 is more than just a time, a date, and a corresponding code word. It's more than an inside joke and a time to smoke. The legend of 420 has left its roots to become an icon for stoners, a symbol for smoking weed, a well-known reference in popular culture, and a worldwide holiday held aptly on April 20th. Annual 420 festivals are everywhere and can be found in most areas with weed-friendly policies. San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, and Amsterdam all hold annual 420 celebrations, and that's only a handful of the cities that will again honor all things marijuana on April 20th, 2019.

How is 420 Celebrated?

marijuana in grinder and joint ready to be rolled showing what is 420 and how people celebrate it

Think of your favorite holiday: maybe it's Christmas, Halloween, or even St. Patrick’s Day. Think of all the traditional festivities like decorating the family Christmas tree, dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing green and drinking yourself blind. Just like 420, none of these holidays are celebrated like they originally were. Asking 'what is 420' is like asking 'what is Christmas' or 'what is Halloween'! Christmas doesn't make us think of mangers, Halloween is no longer for respecting the dead, and the long-deceased Saint Patrick (Patron Saint of Ireland) probably isn't the first thing on your mind on March 17th. That all goes to show that just because a holiday began a certain way, it doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

leafbuyer weed deals banner

420 was once a 5-person celebration of smoking in secret (if the Waldos story is true, that is) but has evolved into a holiday that celebrates a citizen's right to marijuana. In the case of this holiday, I'd say that's the good kind of change.

Celebrating 420 as a Time

420 on a digital clock showing what is 420

Since the origin of 420 allegedly began as a scheduled time for smoking, it makes sense that stoners continue to celebrate 420 as a time to consume weed and weed products. A few, more hardcore weed-lovers celebrate 420 twice, smoking once in the morning and again in the afternoon (both 4:20 am and pm). Most people, however, tend to agree that 4:20 pm is a better time to get the best high. Celebrating 420 as a time means you drop everything the second you see 4:20 on the clock, and smoke as fast as you can. 4:21 just isn't as satisfying or meaningful as 4:20, so catching your smoke on-the-dot is a treat! Unfortunately, celebrating marijuana at 4:20 pm with a nine to five job is difficult, if not downright impossible.

Celebrating 420 as a Date

april 20th on a calendar with grass on the background showing what is 420

As the 20th day of the fourth month, April 20th has become the not-so-unofficial holiday for marijuana and marijuana-lovers everywhere. In a time where weed was illegal and punishable, large-scale 420 celebrations were a way to enjoy cannabis while actively protesting restrictive laws. As legalization of recreational cannabis became a reality instead of an ideal, 420 became a festival of celebration and still, of course, weed. With 420 festivals you can now expect large crowds dressed in their best stoner apparel, a weed-induced air of good cheer, more smoking devices than you can name, and perhaps some city police keeping the entire event in check. When the clock strikes 4:20 pm on April 20th at a 420 festival, everyone smokes their favorite weed strain in honor of the great 420. Celebrations for 420 as a date are not complete without a huge plume of marijuana smoke.

Celebrating 420 as a Number

420 as street number

420 has taken on a meaning much larger than a date and a time. But what is 420 if not a date and time? 420 is a number that stoners look for, find enjoyment in, and can share a commonality. Celebrating 420 as a number means cooking your frozen pizza at 420 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 415. It means laughing when the address of your local dispensary is, you guessed it, 420. Recognizing, enjoying, and sharing in the common knowledge of the number is the best way to celebrate 420. Finding joy in those small 420s creates a reason to celebrate all the time, not just on a certain day at a certain time.

The Future of 420

marijuana clothing at marijuana rally
Editorial credit: Anna50 / Shutterstock.com
The world of cannabis is rapidly changing, which means that 420 may not mean tomorrow what it does today. With recent strides for the marijuana industry, like Canada's legalization of recreational cannabis, we can only predict an upsurge in cannabis consumption. Attitudes towards marijuana are changing, and we can expect that the legend of 420 will continue to grow with the weed industry. Sure, April 20th will probably never become a bank holiday, but it will continue to change and evolve with the expanding weed industry. Who knows, one day you might even find yourself sharing a joint with grandma and grandpa next April 20th at exactly 4:20 pm! Either way, the legend of 420 is here to stay. We can only wait to see where 420 goes, and what it will become.


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Isabella Cook
Isabella is a freelance journalist based in Northern California. She hopes to use her satirical writing experience to bring fun and facts together in her articles. When she isn't writing, Isabella can generally be found cooking, catching up on shows, or reading a really old book.