420: A Short Guide to Its History

Single cannabis leaf pictured against white background

Every year on April 20th cannabis aficionados around the world get together to celebrate their favorite herb’s unofficial holiday. The thing is, even people who’ve been celebrating 420 for years have no idea how the whole thing got started, and more than a few have simply accepted one of the many tall tales surrounding 420’s origins. In this post, the team at everyone’s favorite Denver headshop will set the record straight about the true origins of 420. Let’s begin by debunking the most popular of those myths.

Myth #1: 420 is the police code for someone smoking weed

“Calling all cars, we got a 420 at 56th and Wabasha”. That’s what a police radio call might sound like if 420 was actually the police code for somebody smoking weed. But it’s not. No one is quite sure where this particular myth first took root or who started it, but as far as myths go it’s as good as any and probably better than a lot of the other ones floating around out there.

Myth #2: There are 420 chemical compounds in cannabis

This one might appeal to more cerebral stoners but unfortunately, there is no truth to it. It is, however, one of the oldest 420 myths and has been floating around since the 1980s and probably originated before that. The fact is there are 483 chemical compounds in weed, not 420. Nice try though.

Myth #3: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin died on 4/20

Hendrix died on September 18, 1970, Joplin died just over 2 weeks later on October 4, 1970, and Morrison died 9 months after Joplin on July 3, 1971. All were huge stars at the time of their deaths and all were 27 years old. None, however, died on April 20th.

Myth #4: 420 is tea time in Holland

Holland? Considering we usually equate tea time with the UK this might be the strangest of the 420 origin myths. Of course, considering Amsterdam is where pot lovers from all over the Western world migrated prior to weed becoming mainstream it’s probably not such a stretch that there would be a 420 myth originating from there. Needless to say, it’s not true.

Myth #5: 420 was the result of applying some simple math to the title of a Dylan song

Yes, Bob Dylan turned the Beatles on to weed which launched their psychedelic period. And yes, Dylan himself in his 1966 song “Rainy Day Woman 12 and 35” espoused that “Everybody must get stoned!” And yes, if you multiply 12 x 35 you get 420. But what we have here is a series of coincidences, not the origin story of a stoner holiday. (A member of our online head shop team did add a phrase from another Dylan song into this article. Did you spot it?)

Now that we’ve got all the gobbledygook out of the way, it’s time to uncover the real origins of 420.

Say Hello to The Waldos

Many stoners, whether they like to admit it or not, are romantic types who enjoy wandering through the musty corridors of their imagination even when they don’t have a buzz on. For that reason alone many of the myths surrounding 420 appeal to them. Unfortunately for the romantically inclined the true origins of 420 are far more prosaic. (Don’t be hating on the staff here at the pipe shop for dropping this truth bomb. Remember, we’re just messengers.)

In the Beginning…

The origins of 420 go back more than 50 years to 1971. At that time there were 5 friends who attended San Rafael High School in California together. These guys nicknamed themselves The Waldos after their habit of meeting up at a particular wall outside of the school.

In 1971 The Waldos heard talk of a secret cannabis crop being grown in the woods not far from the school. Every day they would meet at, you guessed it, 4:20 when their classes were done and dive into the woods in search of the grow. During the day when they passed each other in the halls, they’d say “420, 420” to remind each other to meet after school. They never did find the crop, but “420” became their code word for weed.

After high school, a couple of Waldos became associated with the house band of Stonerland, The Grateful Dead. The Waldo alums would hang around backstage at Dead shows bouncing their favorite phrase around in search of weed. It didn’t take long for Deadheads – those loyal Dead fans that followed the group everywhere – to pick up on the phrase and soon they too were using it as a code for weed.

Long story short… Steven Bloom, editor of HighTimes magazine heard the phrase being bandied about at a Grateful Dead show in 1990. He was even handed a flyer stating some members of the audience were going to meet at 4:20 for some 420-ing. He soon learned what the phrase meant and started using it in his magazine thereby introducing it to the world at large. And the rest, as they say, is history.


So there you have it. The next time your buds at Denver University are debating the origins of 420 you can act the insufferable know-it-all and set them straight. And next time you’re looking for some heady glass with which to enjoy your 420 check out our online head shop.

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