the origin of 420: illustration of clock showing 4:20 with 4:20 written out and a cannabis leaf

The Origin of 420

There we were, a bunch of high school kids sitting in my buddy Mike’s bedroom. A bootleg tape (yes, I said tape) of a Phish concert was playing in the background. Normally an upbeat and giggly bunch, we all sat there straight faced as each of us stared intently at the clock watching the second hand slowly make its way around the clock face. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a dab tool. Across the room you could see JP’s head slowly rotating in a clockwise direction following the second hand. Then it happened. The moment we have been focused on so intensely has finally arrived.

“HAPPY 4:20!” shouted JP as he hit the bowl and then quickly passed it. Each of us took a quick hit because we were trying to all get a hit in before it became 4:21. It almost resembled the childhood game, Hot Potato. Except I guess you would call this one Baked Potato. Back then, 4:20 was like a religion to us. No matter where we were, we always had a one hitter on us so we could at least .take one ceremonious hit to honor the Cannabis Gods. When April 20th rolled around, it was like a national stoner holiday for us! I mean, come on! It’s 420 ALL DAY! Even today at almost 40 years old, a few childhood friends still text me “Happy 4/20” every April 20th.


But what is significant about the numbers four, two, and zero? What do they represent? How did it all start? One of the things that made this 420 phenomenon so important to us was that we heard a rumor that Jerry Garcia, who died August 9, 1995 at 4:23am, took one last toke at 4:20 and then passed away three minutes later. The coroner’s report says he died of a heart attack in the hospital so that story is unlikely, but it really had us going for a few years.

The Origin of 420: The Theories

Penal Code Theory

In addition to the rumored California penal code theory, we had also heard that it was the code for someone smoking marijuana in New York. As cool as those may have been, they were false and not even close to as cool as the real story. 

Compound Theory

In a more scientific approach, someone I went to college with once told me that marijuana has 420 chemical compounds and that was where the term came from. This dude seemed like a smart guy, plus he had science to back him up! I was surely convinced that he was correct until one day, while reading an issue of High Times, I stumbled across a photo caption that said that cannabis has 315 chemical compounds. More recent studies are showing 483 chemical compounds. Whichever number is true, it sure isn’t 420.

Date Theories

Some origin stories were just super ridiculous and easily debunked. First there was the rock star death day theory, stating that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin all died on 4/20. A quick internet check will tell you that is not true. Someone else theorized that it was because of Hitler’s Birthday. While that is his birthday, there is nothing to support that he had any connections to cannabis. Another easily disproved theory was that 4/20 was the “perfect” day to plant your marijuana. That would obviously change depending on where you were on the planet so that couldn’t be true.

Hoffman Theory

One of the more interesting theories based on fact surrounds Albert Hofmann. Hofmann was a Swiss scientist best known for his ground-breaking work with psychedelics. He was the first person to synthesize LSD back in November of 1938 as well as the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

According to his lab notes, on April 16th 1943, Hofmann had some accidental contact with the LSD that he inadvertently ingested when he touched his mouth. After two intense hours of tripping, the effects faded. Three days later April 19th at 4:20pm, Albert Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD. While this is a very true and interesting tale, there is no connection to the 420 in this story and marijuana.

Dylan Theory

Years went by and I still had no clue about the true origin of 420. I was in college, finding my way in the world as a man and I had a burning question that I couldn’t answer. What’s a guy to do? Well I don’t know about you, but this guy went to the coolest and most knowledgeable stoner I knew, my Dad. After all, father knows best!

Dad told me two theories he had heard about involving Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. He said he wasn’t sure if either were true but that this was what he had told me. The Bob Dylan theory had to do with his 1966 single, “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.” The chorus has the line “everybody must get stoned” in it and the song became an anthem for stoners everywhere. But what does that have to do with 420? Multiply 12 and 35 and you get 420. Seems like a stretch but cool nonetheless.

Grateful Dead Theory

The Grateful Dead Theory my Dad told me sounded more plausible than the Dylan theory. This rumor was that the Dead would always stay in room 420 at hotels when they were on the road. While this sounded legit to me, after a little research on the internet, it turned out that this theory had been heard of by the Dead and Grateful Dead Productions spokesman, Dennis McNally, confirmed that this was not true at all. Now while both of Dad’s theories turned out to be false, that last one about the Grateful Dead helped me to stumble upon what is widely accepted as the true story, and it does involve the Grateful Dead to a certain extent.

Waldo Theory

While researching the 420-hotel myth, I stumbled on to a story about a group of five high school kids from San Rafael, California in the early 70s. The story is that a group of guys called the Waldos (Jeff, Dave, Steve, Larry, and Mark) found a hand-drawn map from a Coast Guardsmen that supposedly led to a marijuana crop site at Point Reyes, just northwest of San Francisco. School ended at 3:00pm and since a few of them had sports or other after school activities, they would meet at the foot of a Luis Pasteur statue on campus at 4:20 and get high then go looking for the crop. This ritual spawned the code 420 to be synonymous with smoking herb and quickly spread through their group of friends at the school.

I know what you’re thinking. How did a private code amongst five high school stoners evolve into its iconic status? Enter the Grateful Dead. Right around this same time, the Grateful Dead had relocated from Haight­ Ashbury to San Rafael in a building right near the school. Mark’s father managed the Dead’s real estate dealings and Dave’s older brother was good friends with bassist Phil Lesh. Because of these connections, the Waldos became close with the band and crew and their 420-vernacular rubbed off on them. Subsequently, it spread across the country as they toured, becoming the biggest cannabis legend of them all.

(Bebes Theory)

There is another group of kids from the same school who called themselves the Bebes that also take claim to the term, however the oldest dated 420 reference is linked back to the Waldos. It is a tie-dyed flag with a pot leaf and 420 made by Waldos friend, Patty, back in the 1971-1972 school year in art class. There is also a printed reference from a friend of the Waldos in the San Rafael High School newspaper as well as a letter dated 1975 from Dave to Steve referencing both Phil Lesh and 420.

The Origin of 420: You be the judge...

Of all the stories I have heard, the Waldo Theory one is the coolest by far. Think about it… you have a bunch of kids following a treasure map to find a marijuana field and inadvertently coining a phrase that would be adopted by one of the biggest touring acts of all-time and become stoner lore for future generations to come. It’s kind of like Stand By Me meets The Goonies meets Cheech and Chong.

So next time you spark up at 4:20 or on 4/20, make sure you dedicate a puff to Jeff, Dave, Steve, Larry, and Mark in honor of their contribution to our cannabis culture.



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