How the Term “420” Gained International Significance

420 Cannabis Now

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!

Rick Pfrommer started as an intern for NORML in 1987 at the tender age of 19. He met Jack Herer soon after and helped co-found Cannabis Action Network (CAN) with Debby Goldsberry. The two of them ran Hemp Tour for over five years. After CAN he moved to Hawaii and learned to cultivate cannabis. Returning in 1997, he worked for several years selling organic nutrients and cultivating cannabis. In 2004 he moved to the Bay Area and was General Manager of the Berkeley Patients Group for two years before helping to found Harborside Health Center in 2006. From Purchasing Manager, General Manager and now Director of Education, he has helped Harborside grow and become the world class institution that it is today. Pfrommer is a regular contributor to Cannabis Now Magazine.

10 Comments

  1. Ollie

    April 21, 2016 at 12:18 am

    And … All the clocks visible in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemount High were set to ……. 4:20

  2. keith

    April 20, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    am burning my marijuana and on the brazier all day in an unventilated room

  3. K. B. House

    April 21, 2014 at 7:04 am

    This is the first time I’ve seen a lot of this information. I am a member of Show-Me Cannabis in Missouri, and am impatiently awaiting the day when our state legalizes this natural remedy for so many illnesses!

  4. David DeMoss Sr

    April 21, 2014 at 3:40 am

    Spent the day puttering around the house and outside. Wishing the people of Wisconsin were smart enough to see that the damn Republicans they voted into office are screwing everyone by not legalizing, weed. Then I cooked a tenderloin.

  5. lisa rockenbach

    April 20, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Awsome….my 1St marriage was 4/20/1981

  6. Ron E. in Colorado

    April 20, 2014 at 10:40 am

    I like the article about the history of the saying 420. Let us not forget, in Colorado it fit in as saying I’m for amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana. Some of us here call April 20th – Cronnica!!! Just Saying!!! 🙂

  7. Bob

    April 20, 2014 at 8:04 am

    I graduated in 1980 at Nauset High on Cape Cod. Whenever we would walk out for a break someone who had stash would yell 4/20 in knowing who ever understood the code would meet in a certain smoking area we had in the woods.

  8. Robby

    April 20, 2014 at 7:14 am

    Interesting! I was always told it was from the law enforcement call numbers for “subject in possession of marijuana”?

    Thanks for the clarification!

    Your buddy,
    Gnarlyman

  9. richard perkinson

    April 20, 2014 at 4:16 am

    As A member of the US Navy, I was stationed at Moffett Field, California. This was also a NASA base located in Mountain View in the Bay Area. This was in the early 70’s. A great time to live near San Francisco. They had cleaned the city up from all the first flock of homeless hippies that went there to live and found there was not enough work and became heroin addicts mostly. The city was nice and they opened help centers and turned nobody away and eventually the city was sparkling clean with an emphasis on leaving parks in every little spot of land available which is very hard to come by for those who know how crowded Silicon Valley is. Practically every business and apartment complex is backed up to a small park where people are encouraged to get outside at lunch and relax, walk, throw frisbees etc. I supported NORML back then and I assumed as lax as marijuana laws were, especially when they started cultivating the now world wide product known as Sensemilla. It was relatively unknown then and usually only cost 100 bucks an ounce. Humboldt County was the epicenter of the Sesemilla explosion. There was even a small town up there they named Weed, California. Very small. The general store, gas station and post office was the same building. There was a restaurant and maybe a couple other building there but very small place supported almost entirely from the sale of herb. It was too far away from any place industrial to work and earn money. I remember plainly when a DEA (a rather new branch of the Federal Government) raided the fertile hills and chopped down a whole flat bed truck of very tall plants. On their way back they stopped in Weed to gas up the truck. The residents were so mad , they laid down in the road in front of the truck, the station owner refused to sell them gas-they had to commandeer the gas with gestapo style muscle. They citizens were dragged out of the way of the truck and life went back to it’s easy way of living again. That never happened to them again for many years. Now they raid the Federal properties for Cartel grown patches (so they say) but some growers have permits now to grow quality weed for the dispensaries in Oakland and San Francisco. I supported NORNL at every chance I got-T-shirts, bongs, rolling papers etc. That and read the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic books. They were very entertaining. I just wish everyone could have experienced the Bay area in those days. Best wishes-Rick Perkinson Happy 4/20!!!

    • Trish Chingon

      May 24, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      Great story!

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