Culture Re-View: The history behind the 420 tradition

420 is internationally recognised as the weed smokers' number
420 is internationally recognised as the weed smokers' number Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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It's 420 today! We look back at the true story behind the number that's inspired the cannabis community.


20 April: How the 420 cannabis tradition began

The 20th of April is the anniversary of quite a few significant events. There’s the upsetting, like the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre and Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Then there’s the more interesting, like Danica Patrick becoming the first female winner of an Indycar race in 2008 and the first recorded performance of Macbeth in 1611.

But the truth is when we think of the 20th of April, for many people one thing comes to mind: 420.

420 is a key part of international cannabis culture, with many people choosing 4:20pm as the time to light up a joint every day. The origin of the term has long been disputed, but it has nonetheless spread across countries and is recognised for its association with weed. Nowadays, it even comes with an annual celebration.

Using US calendar naming systems, 420 refers to April (4) the 20th. Across the world, 420 celebrations will take place today in public parks, often emphasising the legal battle to legalise cannabis.

Mark Blinch/AP
People gather to smoke marijuana during the "420 Toronto" rally in Toronto on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.Mark Blinch/AP

Although the recreational use of marijuana is now legal/decriminalised in the US and other countries, 420 celebrations predate marijuana laws in the US and take place in multiple places where it is still illegal.

In Europe, London’s Hyde Park will expect revellers to light up together despite it not being legal to smoke in the country. Over in Amsterdam, coffeeshops will be open as usual for regular smoking customers in the decriminalised state, while 420 celebrations are taking place across the city. 

What’s the story behind 420?

How did the number 420 become so associated with cannabis in the first place? The key part of weed subculture knowledge has long been a disputed myth. There have been claims it’s a police radio code for smokers, that it’s the penal system code for marijuana use in California or even just the hotel room number The Grateful Dead insisted on staying in while on tour.

While those are all myths, it seems there is a generally agreed upon true story behind the number.

David Zalubowski/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved.
Dressed to promote the legalization of marijuana for an organization, Patrick Bettis of Glen Ellyn, Ill., lights up a joint to celebrate at 4:20 p.mDavid Zalubowski/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved.

In 1971, five Californian high-school students - Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich - found a map to a treasure trove marijuana crop in Point Reyes, north-west of San Francisco.

Every day after school, the boys would meet up and drive off in search of the marijuana. The group, nicknamed themselves the Waldos after the wall they’d meet up at, and gave their treasure hunt the codename 420, as that was the time they could all meet after school finished.

They never found the marijuana, but the use of “420” for the search spread to being a codename for smoking in general, and from there it caught on.

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