The Real History of 420
April 2020 – aka 4/20 – marks the only time this century when 420, cannabis culture’s favorite holiday, will last an entire month.
While the origins of the term “420” are often debated, people around the world honor the number by using it to celebrate all things cannabis. Whether it’s smoking a joint at 4:20 pm or attending a cannabis festival on April 20th, 420 is now synonymous with marijuana.
Up until 1999, the truth behind the history of 420 was unknown. Then a man named emailed an editor at High Times with a shocking claim: he and four of his friends were the true originators of 420.
Capper’s email to High Times was no coincidence. In 1991, the monthly cannabis magazine helped bring 420 into the mainstream after Steve Bloom, one of its writers, found a flyer at a Grateful Dead concert that included the numerical sequence. The magazine published a photo of the flyer in May of the next year, and the 420 euphemism was disseminated to the entire country.
High Times continued printing the number in subsequent issues, helping to cement it into popular culture. As 420 gained popularity, so did its mythology. Some suggested the term referred to the San Rafael police department’s “420” radio code about “pot-smoking in progress,” and although the department denied any such code existed, the myth endured. Another explanation was that marijuana was made up of precisely 420 chemicals.
But Steve Capper’s email offered a different explanation. Back in 1971, he and his friends, who called themselves the Waldos, would congregate around San Rafael High School’s statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 pm, every day, to smoke pot.
In the email to High Times, Steve Capper said he’d be willing to put up $1,000 of his own money for the Waldos to be tested by a polygraph or stress-voice analysis to prove their claim. While the High Times didn’t go the scientific route, they did send writer Steven Hager to San Rafael to interview Capper and the other Waldos, which comprised Dave Reddix, Mark Gravich, Larry Schwartz, and Jeffrey Noel.
After arriving in San Rafael and meeting the old group of friends, the Waldos took Hager to their old high school campus and showed him around. Their first stop was a wall on which they used to sit and mock their classmates. One day, Capper said, they were sitting on the wall when another friend of theirs showed up with a treasure map to his brother’s secret pot patch, which supposedly grew somewhere on Point Reyes Peninsula. The Waldos decided to meet after school and drive to Point Reyes, but since school got out at 3:10 pm, and some of the Waldos had after-school activities lasting an hour, they chose to meet at precisely 4:20 pm at the Louis Pasteur statue.
On the day of the treasure hunt, the Waldos continued to remind one another about the meeting throughout the day by saluting each other in the halls and saying “420 Louie.” After school, they took Capper’s 1966 Chevy Impala to Point Reyes and tried to find the patch. It eluded them, but after tossing around the phrase 420 all day, the number permanently entered their lexicon, and they began using it in everyday speech to covertly discuss getting high without tipping off parents or teachers.
But at the time, 420 was still relegated to a small group of people in a single location. It took, of all things, The Grateful Dead to broadcast it to the world. The Waldo’s were big fans of the band, and a few years after their first 420 meeting at the Pasteur statue, Dave Reddix managed to get a job as a roadie for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. The expression caught on in the Deadhead community and word spread until December 28, 1990, when a group of Oakland Deadheads distributed flyers inviting people to smoke “420” on April 20 at 4:20 pm. One of these flyers would wind up in High Times.
And there you have it. What began as five teenagers with a pot treasure map has blossomed into an international celebration of weed and a rallying cry for legalization. There are 420 festivals, 420-themed deals, and discounts at dispensaries and head shops, 420 references in songs, movies, and TV shows. California even passed Senate Bill 420 to regulate medical marijuana use back in 2003. Thanks to a few friends in California, cannabis culture has a full minute of every day all to itself, a full day every year all to itself, and in 2020, a full month.