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The weird origin of 420 and how it went global

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origin of 420

What does 420 mean? Why is 420 associated with weed? What’s the origin of 420? Googling these questions in the middle of the night usually means you came home from a party that went a little edgier than expected, or you suspect something sketchy in your son’s newfound passion for arithmetic and his frequent numerical discussions with friends.

No matter which side of life you’re coming from, we are here to help you explore. Let’s find out what 420 means and its origin, for better or for worse.

The meaning of 420

Unless you’re being interrogated by the police in some less enlightened part of the planet, 420 most certainly means cannabis or the act of smoking weed. It can also refer to April 20th, which has become an international counterculture holiday where cannabis-smokers come together to participate in rallies, festivals, and parties that celebrate cannabis culture or protest weed laws around the world.

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Why is 420 associated with cannabis

420

420 became widely associated with weed beginning in the 1990s, but its origin can be traced back even further. However, due to the 420 community’s hazy history and the general unreliability of cannabis-smokers as historians and carriers of information, if you ask 100 stoners how 420 became associated with weed, you might end up coming home with 400 different answers. 

Some of the more common myths and legends associated with 420’s origin you might come across include: 

  • 420 is a police radio code in California for cannabis consumption
  • 420 is the number of active chemicals in marijuana
  • 420 is some kind of reference to Hitler’s birthday (April 20th, 1889)
  • Anything related to Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, or any other Bob’s

Despite how confident, assured, and physically sober your friend might present themselves when pitching you these chronicles, none of them is true.

Instead, the general consensus amongst the cannabis community today is that 420’s origin can be traced back to a fun afterschool activity pioneered by a group of students from San Rafael High School in California in 1971.

How five high school stoners started 420

420 origin

In 1971, a group of five cannabis-loving high school students who by now, probably share more recollection of going to school high than going to high school, regularly met after class to hang out, smoke weed, and explore various parts of the Bay area.

One day, the group of friends received insider information (along with a map) about an abandoned patch of weed grown by the Coast Guards in proximity. They agreed to meet up, get high, and hunt down the ownerless plant for themselves. Coincidentally, they decided to gather at 4:20 PM.

When the friends met in the hallways, they would tell one another “four-twenty” as a reminder of their meet-up time. Long story short, they never found the abandoned plant, but the term “420” stuck. It became their secret code for cannabis and smoking weed and stayed with them long after high.

From inside joke to global celebration 

Two of the high school friends, Steve Capper and Dave Reddix, retold the entire story of 420’s origin vividly in this interview with the LA Times. Unlike Hitler and the police codes, they actually have postmarked letters and high school newspaper clippings from the ’70s to prove their story of how 420 became associated with weed.

According to Reddix, he later worked as a roadie and became good friends and smoking buddies with the members of the Grateful Dead, a hugely popular counter-culture rock band in the ’70s.

During this time, he continued to refer to cannabis and smoking weed as 420, and it soon became a pet phrase for the band members before spreading on to their fan base and the wider counter-culture community. For our confused zoomer readers, this was essentially how things went viral before there were internet and memes.

If you are interested in delving deeper into the origin of 420 and how it became associated with weed on a global scale, High Times mapped out a complete timeline of 420’s history for that purpose. It might be worth a read.

Ready for some 420?

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