You may have heard or seen the numbers 420 and 710 associated with cannabis culture. For the origin and history of 710 click here, for 420 read on….
Urban myth has it that 4-20 was a California police code for “cannabis consumption in progress” which could alert enforcement action. However, research has shown that the California police have never used this code and it is likely that this has always been an inside joke among smokers.
Instead, the term could have originated in 1971 with a group of 5 high school guys in San Rafael California who called themselves the Waldos because they hung out at a certain wall. They heard of a whole field of the glorious weed and set themselves on a mission to discover its location. The meet-up time was 4:20 after school. Copious amounts of weed were consumed, but the location of the field remained a mystery.
The story probably would have stopped there if it was any other era, but it was the height of “flower power” and the peace movement and cannabis was the flower of choice. When one of the Waldos became a roadie for the Grateful Dead, the meet-up time of 4:20 changed into a code for lighting up. You could 4/20 any time of the day, but the actual time became equivalent to siesta, tea time, or coctail hour.
The counter-culture magazine High Times attributed the origin of the term to followers of the Grateful Dead and — again — the story could have stopped there in the mid-1970s. However, when the old drug war propaganda that had been relegated to the background during the liberation movements made a roaring and more militant come-back in the 1980s, having a code word for cannabis consumption once again became a necessity and the term went underground.
And this is where a second story about the Grateful Dead kicks in. Apparently a flyer was circulated at an early 1990s Dead concert urging people to meet on 4/20 at 4:20 at Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California for a mass light up. This event is alleged to have kicked off 4/20 as a direct action against cannabis prohibition, but a growing store of research shows that it probably didn’t do this out of the blue.
For example, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, protestors have been holding Hash Bash as a push-back against the agressive policing of cannabis since April 1, 1972. The first Hash Bash took advantage of the state law prohibiting marijuana use being temporarily rescinded following a constitutional challenge. Although the law was quickly replaced, cannabis supporters continued to keep the date.
It was during this underground period that 4/20 became more thoroughly attached to a growing global protest against cannabis prohibition. As laws tightened, police militarized and prisons filled, the opposing reaction gained strength with thousands turning out to some 4/20 events through the early 2000s. In these intervening years the spread of awareness reached well beyond the shores of sunny California.
By 2015 over 125 countries took part in what some had dubbed “Weed Day,” a public gathering in spite of the law on April 20 with a celebratory light up at 4:20pm. Hash Bash 2017 attracted over 10,000 people and is expected to continue growing. At many of these events, such as Hyde Park in London or Washington Square in New York, speakers providing analysis and information on the “drug war” are scheduled through the day.
Regardless of who the speaker or entertainment headliner might be, the big event at most 4/20 gatherings was how the police would handle thousands of people breaking the law in front of them. The 4/20 event in most countries is a litmus test of state tolerance for cannabis consumption.
Some activists have dismissed 4/20 as showcasing the worst of cannabis culture. Their take is that people laying on the grass smoking grass reinforces the old stereotype of lazy stoners. However, many more greet 4/20 as a best example of non-violent direct action where people en mass simply break a law that shouldn’t exist as a statement against authoritarian government oppression.