What are the Origins of ‘420’ – the Myths and the Facts

20th April 2021

‘420’, ‘4:20’, and ‘4/20’ (4th April), are all variations of the, now famous, code for cannabis or marijuana. The 20th of April has even become an unofficial holiday, celebrated globally, in honour of the diverse plant.

There are many theories and myths surrounding the code, but what is the true origin of ‘420’? We’re taking a look at some of the most popular rumours, and laying out the most likely origin story.

USA Police Code & Penal Code for Marijuana

This is probably the most well-circulated of the 420 theories, likely due to its simple believability. The explanation has been passed on from group to group, and generation to generation. However, it is also very easily disproved.

Turns out that. at the time of ‘420’s initial popularity, there weren’t any state penal code sections called ‘420’. Funnily enough, though, the medical cannabis bill, which was passed in California in 2003, was called ‘SB420’. Looks like one of the legislators had a sense of humour!

However, there were police codes using the number, although they didn’t relate to marijuana use, either. In California, where the code is said to have originated, ‘420’ actually referred to “the obstruction of public land”. In Las Vegas, the code was even used to refer to “Homicide”.

Bob Marley’s Death

Alas, an even easier rumour to dispel. Given the global superstar’s well-documented love of the “herb”, it’s no surprise that this theory was devised. Unfortunately, it proves to be extremely poorly researched.

A simple ‘Google’ search will disprove this one in less than a second, as Bob Marley sadly died on the 5th of November, 1981.

Bob Dylan’s Song, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 and #35’

Back in the 60s, Bob Dylan released his hit song, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 and #35’, complete with the line: “Everybody must get stoned”. ‘420’ comes into the equation when you multiply 12 and 35. The answer? You guessed it – 420.

Seems pretty solid – if not a slight stretch – right? Wrong!

What are the Origins of '420' - the Myths and the Facts
Bob Dylan; Photographer: Jerry Schatzberg

Unfortunately, Dylan himself kind of debunked this one by commenting:

“I never have and never will write a ‘drug song’.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, Dylan even implied that the song lyric referred to the biblical punishment of ‘stoning’. So, not the vibe people hoped for…

But, what about the numbers? Supposedly, this is a nice story of a woman and her daughter entering the studio, out of the rain, where Dylan was recording. He then proceeded to guess both their ages correctly – 12 and 35. So, that’s another theory debunked!

Adolf Hitler’s Birthday

The theories are beginning to stack up at this point, and perhaps becoming more of a stretch. This one might just be the strangest of all the ‘420’ explanations.

There is no doubt that Adolf Hitler was born on the 20th of April (4/20). However, what this has to do with cannabis is unclear. Historians have found no links between the Nazi leader and marijuana.

So, the relationship between the weed holiday, and one of the most evil dictators the world has ever known, is certainly just an unfortunate coincidence.

So that’s the major rumours disproved, but that’s not all of them – we haven’t even covered ‘teatime in Holland’, or ‘the number of compounds in cannabis’, but that’s easy – Both False!

The Real Story Behind ‘420’

The most probable origin, backed by physical evidence, comes from a group of California school friends in the early 1970s. The group, who called themselves ‘the Waldos‘ claim to have met up after school, and before their parents got home from work, to get high. The time? You guessed it – 4:20 pm.

The Waldos would pass in the school corridors and remind each other: “420 Louis” – the “Louis” referred to a statue of Louis Pasteur on the school grounds, where the group would meet. However, this was dropped in favour of simply “420”.

One member of ‘the Waldos’ told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000:

“It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like, “Do you have any?” or “Do I look stoned?””

But how did the Waldos’ private joke come to be known all around the world, and become a global holiday for cannabis lovers? The group and those who have researched the origin story believe that this can largely be attributed to the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead was a Californian rock band that were strongly associated with the ‘420’ movement. It just so happens that the group of high school friends had connections to the band through other friends and siblings. The code apparently caught on in the larger circle and was transported by ‘Deadheads’ across the country!

Eventually, ‘420’ became commonplace among cannabis users, worldwide. So, there you have it, the origins of the most famous cannabis codeword!

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