Discussed, researched and argued over for years, there’s no shortage of theories about the origin of the term 420. One rumor says 420 is the dispatch code for public cannabis consumption (it’s not). Another popular myth states that there are 420 chemical compounds in cannabis (there are actually 500+).
The real story can be traced to our own Bay Area – the North Bay, specifically – in the early 1970s. It all started with five teenagers who went to San Rafael High School. After school and football practice, the students – Steve Capper, Mark Gravich, Dave Reddix, Larry Schwartz, and Jeffrey Noel – would meet at 4:20 pm by the campus statue of Louis Pasteur and saunter off for a smoke session. Since they hung out by “the wall,” they called themselves the ‘Waldos.’
“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20,” Capper told the Huffington Post. “It originally started out 4:20-Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis.”
Stoned Safaris Throughout the Bay Area
That year, 1971, the friends learned about a member of the Coast Guard who planted a cannabis crop and no longer tended to it. The Coastguardsman gave the Waldos a treasure map of sorts, and the group would pile into a powder blue 1966 Chevy Impala to scour the Point Reyes National Seashore for the abandoned crop.
Point Reyes wasn’t the Waldos’ only adventure. In fact, they were known for their spectacular escapades, which they called safaris. Once, during the Vietnam War, they snuck into a military air field and the mechanics ended up showing the curious teens different weapons systems. Another day they went beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and made the painters nets their “personal trampolines.”
The Waldos never did find the patch of abandoned weed, but they did end up making history. The term “420” was coined, enabling people to discuss their cannabis sessions without straights finding out.
The Grateful Dead Connection
From about 1973 to 1990, the term 420 remained an underground phenomenon, passed along from smoker to smoker. But by 1991, that all changed.
Reddix’s brother Patrick was a good friend of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and got Reddix a job as a roadie for some of the band members. Gravitch’s father managed real estate for the Grateful Dead, so the Waldos would regularly hang out outside the Dead’s practices and even got back-stage passes for some of the shows.
Because of their open access to the band, the Waldos used their code phrase freely, especially at venues like the former Winterland Ballroom, and it began to catch on. Then on Dec. 28, 1990, a group of Deadheads in Oakland handed out flyers that invited concert attendees to smoke “420” on April 20th at 4:20 pm.
420 Goes International
A copy of the flyer ended up at the High Times office in New York. In 1991, Steve Bloom, a former High Times reporter and an authority on cannabis culture, printed the flyer, and 420 became known across the world as a code for cannabis.
In 1995, the Cannabis Action Network held its first 4/20 ball in San Francisco at Maritime Hall (which began and ended at 4:20). Two years later, High Times launched 420.com and the term went digital. Then in 1998, the publication credited the Waldos for inventing the idea of the stoner holiday.
Today, tens of thousands of Americans gather to celebrate the counterculture holiday. San Francisco’s Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park is normally teeming with crowds of smokers, passing bongs and blunts on April 20. While the COVID pandemic has forced cannabis enthusiasts to celebrate virtually, the day will come when we can celebrate in person – and even pass around a joint.