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How the Term “420” Gained International Significance

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How the Term “420” Gained International Significance

For those in the cannabis industry, 420 is our Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.

April 20, aka International Marijuana Day, is now such an ingrained part of cannabis culture that many people, especially under the age of thirty, probably assume it has always been celebrated as the high holy day of hemp (well, really cannabis) but in reality the roots of 420 are fairly new.

420 originated in the late seventies when a group of high school students in San Rafael, Calif., nicknamed “The Waldos” began meeting every day at 4:20 p.m. by the Louis Pasteur statue on campus to partake in their favorite afternoon activity.

Soon enough “Let’s 420!” became shorthand for “let’s go smoke”.

As the 80s dawned, with its soul-crushing denouncement of all things natural and good, the Waldos graduated and joined the adult world and 420 just became a hazy memory, destined for the dustbin of history.

The modern cannabis movement really began in the late 80s when Jack Herer and the Cannabis Action Network (CAN)—which was co-founded by Debby Goldsberry and yours truly—began the Hemp Tour. Over a five-year period we had events in 49 of the states, unfortunately we never made it to Hawaii. It’s a long drive.

These events ranged from teach-ins at colleges to rallies at state capitols to raise awareness about cannabis and hemp. We also frequented Grateful Dead shows where we could always count on resounding support for our work. We funded ourselves by selling Ed Rosenthal’s books, t-shirts and hemp twine. The twin was provided by Harborside Health Center’s Steve Deangelo, whose hemp company Ecolution was a pioneer in the industry. Steve also helped fund us more directly out of his own pocket.

At an Oakland Coliseum Dead show in 1990, someone dropped a flyer off at our CAN booth describing the history of 420. The story it told was partially right, it mentioned The Waldos but erroneously stated that 420 was the police code in San Rafael for marijuana smoking in progress. We were intrigued by this tale and began distributing copies of the flyer as we traveled the highways and by ways of the U.S.A.

We passed them out everywhere—from small Kentucky river towns to New York City and Washington D.C.

Only a couple years later, in the early 90s, High Times, who covered our exploits and even published our tour dates, picked up on the story. They bought a school bus, which we painted with psychedelic colors, a la Ken Kesey’s Further, and they joined us on the road to help spread the word. The magazine published a story of our collective adventures, which featured 420 prominently, thus officially making it the official down low, at that time slang for cannabis consumption.

The last twenty years has cemented 420 as the international code for marijuana smoking. Police training manuals even mention it as something to clue them into a possible suspect’s cannabis use. April 20 has become a day of celebration for all things cannabis—for both the movement and the legal industry.

In the legal industry, it is the Black Friday of dispensaries and means hordes of shoppers. Many folks will visit several dispensaries, collecting freebies and taking advantage of discount shopping as well.

But for those of us with roots in the activist movement, our world started as a community, then became a movement and has now matured into an industry and 420 is our Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.

What are you doing to celebrate 4/20 this year? Tell us in the comments below!

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