BY ALLISON STEIN
The “Canna-day” that really started more as a “canna-time” has definitely caught on.
April 20th AKA “National Weed Day,” “Stoner Christmas,” “Marijuana’s High Holy Holiday,” it’s a day filled with ever-expanding pro-cannabis events from massive festival smoke outs to small house “seshes” with your close circle of friends.
It’s the day we come together in “stoner solidarity” to show our “pothead pride.” In addition, 420 has become the cannabis industry’s “Black Friday,” by far the biggest sales day of the year. Between 2017 and 2018 sales appear to have grown 30%.
And 420 isn’t just a day to celebrate cannabis. Mainstream businesses are following the lead. National publications like The Huffington Post and USA Today are now advertising 420 specials. Car companies, nightclubs, and clothing stores are offering “420 specials.”
Restaurants like the cannabis-themed Cheba Hut chain, have been in on the action for years. Even Starbucks plays along. This year, taking the annual 420-mania to its absurdist extreme, a Denver Carls Jr. will feature a sandwich called, “Rocky Mountain High: CheeseBurger Delight,” with a CBD-infused burger patty.
Though for some the “holiday” has devolved for some into people spending their 420 celebrations waiting in dispensary lines for hours trying to get the best deal, the annual event appears to have actually began with a similar search for weed.
High school students are frequently at the root of most modern-day legends. This one is no different. In 1971 a group five teenagers Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich, dubbed themselves the Waldos. The name was inspired by their hang out spot being a wall outside their school at San Rafael High School in California.
The Waldos, unbeknownst to most, were charged with a mission: the group had committed to search for a legendary lost cannabis crop. Guided only with a map from a grower in the Coast Guard who had to abandon his field, the 5 coordinated their search from their meeting place by the Louis Pasteur statue at their school and synchronized the time of 420pm to meet.
“4:20 Louis” became the Waldos’ secret code. They reminded each other about it in the halls at school. They could drop the code in front of parents or teachers, and no one knew what the Waldos were talking about. Later, they axed the “Louis” part and 4:20 was born.
The Waldos may have never found that lost crop, but instead the term was found by the band, the Grateful Dead. Dead bassist, Phil Lesh, was close friends with Dave Reddix’s older brother and adopted the term. It wasn’t the Waldos only tie to the band. Reddix himself later became Lesh’s roadie and the Dead’s real estate projects were handled by Mark Gravitch’s father.
Before long, the band embraced the term and, according to Lesh, “called for 4:20 p.m. to be the socially accepted hour of the day to consume cannabis.” In 1990 Steven Hager at High Times Magazine heard the term 420 used in context at a dead show by the band, and wrote about it in his article, “Stoner Smart or Stoner Stupid?”
Then, as TIME magazine documented in 2017, ”On Dec. 28, 1990, a group of Deadheads in Oakland handed out flyers that invited people to smoke “420” on April 20 at 4:20 p.m. The following year, Steven Bloom, another reporter from High Times, reprinted the flyer and gave the flyer makers credit for shaping the modern concept of 420.
“They wanted people all over the world to get together on one day each year and collectively smoke pot at the same time,” Bloom explained, “They birthed the idea of a stoner holiday, which April 20 has become.” The rest is history, 420 bloomed from there. By the mid-90s 420 events was launching around the globe. One of the earliest mass cannabis consumption events started in Boulder, Colorado. “Yeah dude, we all just go and smoke at this university and the cops like, turn their head,” said an early adopter.
At first cannabis enthusiasts were reluctant to risk participating. Who ever heard of a place where marijuana wasn’t demonized? Before long folks however started noticing flyers for 420 raves and smoke-outs. The festival at Colorado University in Boulder has been recognized as starting around 1996, but probably goes back to before that. Over the last few decades CU’s administration has gone back and forth over permitting the smoke out and have occasionally closed the campus.
After massive lawn damages in Denver and Vancouver in 2017, those cities considered banning 420 celebrations, but cannabis consumers weren’t having any of that. This year 420 will be observed everywhere, worldwide, at many locations, in case you’re looking around for somewhere to be this 4/20, here are some of those more famous ones are:
- The University of Colorado’s Boulder campus
- San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park near the Haight-Ashbury district (Hippy Hill)
- Ottawa, Ontario, at Parliament Hill and Major’s Hill Park
- Montreal, Quebec, at Mount Royal monument
- Edmonton, Alberta, at the Alberta Legislature Building
- Vancouver, British Columbia, at the Vancouver Art Gallery
- Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunset Beach (as of 2016)
- Washington Square Park in Manhattan
- Denver, Colorado Civic Center Park has its Mile High 420 party
- London, England at Hyde Park
- Dunedin, New Zealand, at the University of Otago
- Ljubljana, Slovenia, at the University of Ljubljana
- Washington D.C. (The National Cannabis Festival has been running since 2016)
The number has become a widespread cultural touchstone prompting an entire subculture of 420-related trivia. Among other fun facts, 420 is the area code for Poland. Despite the persistent rumors, 420 is NOT police code for marijuana smoking, though it is the Las Vegas police code for homicide. Canada has a highway that changed its name to 420 and is noted for wild cannabis (probably hemp) growing alongside the road. Speaking of highways, the highway mile marker 420 is stolen so often some states don’t even post one. In Idaho, to avoid using the number they post a sign saying, “419.9.”
One of Bob Marley’s sons was born on 4/20. Famed DC cannabis reformer Adam Etinger was awarded a vanity license plate “420,” after DC passed legalization. 420 has even made its way into our politics. State legislatures in California and Arizona have both considered cannabis bills intentionally numbered 420.
Federal Bill H.R.420 introduced this January would regulate marijuana like alcohol and reschedule the plant, nationally. If it passes the unofficial cannabis day might actually become an official one.
—Allison Stein writes about AZ cannabis for ACM and AZ-NORML.