A Brief History of 420

6 months ago   •   3 min read

By Juana Know Staff

The term "420" seems to crop up everywhere in pop culture. The next time you rewatch Pulp Fiction, you will notice each clock is set to "420". Stoner movies, such as Pineapple Express, make overt references to "420" as insider jokes to be enjoyed by those in the know. The term has become a catch-all for smoking marijuana, with its origins seemingly shrouded in mystery. There are several theories about how 420 started but how did April 20 become the official marijuana appreciation time?

A Few Myths

We can start by eliminating the false theories about how did 420 start? The first myth is that the California Police use "420" as a code for public marijuana smoking. This theory sprang up in the late-70s when the term began to make its way around the world. Memories of the counter-culture making San Francisco their home in the late-60s and early-70s informed the myth with gravitas.

The second theory involves Bob Dylan, the voice of the counter-culture in the late-60s and early-70s. Dylan is a legendary figure in the counter-culture for more than his songwriting abilities. The popular theory is Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana and changed the course of mainstream culture. In terms of "420", Dylan's song Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35 has been named as a possible reason for the popularity of the number. The false theory states 12 multiplied by 35 answers 420. Although the math is correct, the myth is false.

The Marin County Story

By 1971, San Francisco had become a shadow of its former self as the home of the counter-culture. As early as 1967, The Beatles George Harrison had traveled to Hippie Hill to seek out the peace and love he thought on offer. Instead, Harrison quickly departed when he found the Hippie ideal had been hijacked by criminals and disturbed people.

In Marin County, California, The Grateful Dead had found a new home in the late-60s far from the unstable atmosphere of San Francisco. The legendary group had moved to the town of San Rafael and began making music in the relaxed atmosphere of the small town. It was in Marin County that a group of High School students introduced The Grateful Dead to "420". From Marin County, the term would spread through the world of "Deadheads" to become globally recognized.

The story behind what is 420 involves five San Rafael High School friends who became known as the Waldos. The five friends used the term as code for smoking marijuana after they became bored with the conservative life they led as student-athletes. The group was made up of Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Lary Schwartz, and Mark Gravich. The friends have stated they would shout "420" at each other to signal it was time to smoke, with the term quickly spreading through their high school.

Two Theories

There are two theories about what is 420. The first theory states the Waldos heard a rumor about a U.S. Coast Guard who had left his marijuana patch unattended after being stationed at another post. The Waldos met up every day after school at 4:20 to try and find the mythical marijuana patch. The other theory is the group met up each day after school to smoke in front of a statue at 4:20.

The Grateful Dead

The role played by The Grateful Dead is not in doubt, but how they became involved remains a mystery. The band had taken a rehearsal space in San Rafael and became friendly with the families of the Waldos. The group of friends believes members of the band could have picked up the term from them when they attended rehearsals.

Steve Capper's brother, Patrick, managed a band who toured with The Grateful Dead and seems to be the most likely person to bring the term to the mainstream. The band, Too Loose to Truck contained a young David Crosby and Terry Haggerty, who Patrick Capper believes adopted "420" as their own term.

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