In life, we have religious holidays like Christmas or Kwanza. We have governmental holidays like Independence Day, or Memorial Day. And then there are those holidays that aren’t really holidays, that we’ve made into holidays, like Black Friday, or April Fool’s Day, or 420. In honor of 420 this year, let’s take a look at two stories, and a possible dark third option. When it comes to 420, it’s all about the Waldos, the Bebes, and maybe even murder.
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What exactly is 420?
420, while not an official holiday anywhere, is one of the most universally celebrated days, as it is not particular to a specific country, religion, or ethnic group. Though there isn’t an official name for this unofficial holiday aside from simply ‘420’, one could call it ‘National Cannabis Awareness Day’, or ‘International Cannabis Culture Day’. Some use the day to smoke themselves silly. Some use the day to take part in illegalization protests, or friendly marijuana-centered gatherings. Regardless of how its done, everyone in the world knows that April 20th, is the day of cannabis.
420 has been a term to denote cannabis for quite some time, but prior to the internet, and the easier transmission and finding of information, the original stories of 420 were not only buried, but often confused, or just plain wrong. There has been misinformation floating around about that story for decades.
Some think its a code to denote marijuana possession by law enforcement – (nope, doesn’t exist), others are pretty sure that there was a California senate bill about cannabis called 420 (this DOES exist, but got its name from the original story, not the other way around), and still others believe it refers in some way to a dead rock icon like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, but neither died or was born on that day.
The story of the Waldos
The most popular story behind what we celebrate today, while almost mundane, is actually pretty cool when you consider we are still not only using the term, but that it skyrocketed from a joke between friends, to one of the most well-known terms used internationally in any category. The first thing to know about this story is that while we write it as 4/20 – which looks like a calendar date, and is treated that way too, it really should be 4:20.
Back in 1971, a group of high school students in San Rafael, California made a practice of getting together at 4:20 everyday to smoke pot. The group of five students was nick-named the ‘Waldos’ because there general meeting point was a wall outside the school. They started using the term “420 Louie” to communicate with each other about smoking, whether it was to ask if the other person had any, or to tell them they looked stoned. It gained many meanings related to cannabis use, and was shouted in the halls between members of the group.
The group must have been pretty influential in their school, because before they left it, the term ‘420’, with the ‘Louie’ dropped, was being used by everyone. This version also states that the kids had heard a story about cannabis planted in the woods nearby which had been left unattended when the planter (a coast guard member) could no longer finish the job. According to the story they would meet at 4:20 to either get stoned, or search the woods for cannabis crops that were never found.
What about the Bebes?
When it comes to 420, many have accepted the Waldos story, but what about the Bebes? The Bebes were a rival group from the same high school with their own compelling story that they coined the term. According to members of the group, the Bebe’s were led by the Bebe – or Brad Bann, who was the one to coin the term. According to their story, it happened one day when they got together to smoke bongs at exactly 4:20, and then recorded music after.
During the recording session, the Bebe started channeling Abraham Lincoln, singing “Four score and 20 years ago”, because of the time they had met to smoke. This immediately became a code around the entire neighborhood. Whereas the 420 story for the Waldos claims they met every day at 4:20, the Bebes claim they met once at 4:20, which started all of it. The Bebes story occurred in 1970, before the Waldos’ story.
The Bebes and the Waldos actually knew each other quite well with Brad Bann and Waldo Steve Capper going back many years before drifting apart by high school. In recent years, barbs have been traded back and forth in the press between the two groups since the Bebes story came out in the early 2000’s as a counter to the growing acceptance of the Waldos story.
The first article to come out about the term 420 not originating with the Waldos, but instead the Bebes was in 2012, called ‘The True Origin of 420 — Setting The Record Straight.’ All of this makes for a confusing story between rivals with nothing really clear cut, other than to say it came out of San Rafael, California circa 1970-1971. Bann has even stated it was he who gave the Waldo’s their name.
It should be noted that when the Waldos put out their story in 1998, they didn’t even mention the Bebes, though later admissions made clear the Bebes were an integral part of it. This makes it odd that they had been left out of a previous telling.
It almost doesn’t matter which group coined the term 420 originally, the Waldos or the Bebes. Many schools have jokes that become common enough for all students to know them. But infrequently do these things make it to a national stage, let alone an international one. The term ‘420’ was co-opted by stoner hippie (and very successful) band the Grateful Dead, as the Waldos actually had connections to the band.
The father of one Waldo, Mark Gravitch, was the real estate manager for the band, and another Waldo, Dave Reddix, had an older brother who was friends with Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Even if the Waldos didn’t come up with it first, everyone was using the term. And no one debates that it was the Waldos that spread it to the Grateful Dead through their connections, though this is not proof of starting it.
The term gained momentum, and in 1991, High Times published an article with a flyer that was found at a Grateful Dead concert at the end of 1990 by then High Times news editor Michael Bloom. The flyer talks about meeting on 4/20, at 4:20, at the Bolinas Ridge in Marin County on Mt. Tamalpais. The flyer even detailed how the term ‘420’ got started, but actually got the original story wrong, saying the Waldos used a police code for smoking marijuana, which we already know doesn’t exist, and never did.
This actually makes it more likely that it was the Bebes who started it, and that the Waldos never actually knew the correct story, instead inserting a fake one that couldn’t be true, before later stating a story more in line with the Bebes, when it was determined that no such police code existed. That, or in the 20 years between the coining of the term and its publication, someone made an assumption without checking facts, and actually changed their story.
Yet another dark 420 connection
There is another possible 420 connection, but it’s not as well put together for consumers to understand, and it comes with an extremely dark and horrifying connection. But it could have significance here. The ‘other’ 420 story does go back to police codes, but it doesn’t represent a police code for marijuana, but a police code for murder. So, where’s the connection? Let’s go back in history.
In 1937, Henry J. Anslinger, newest appointee to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was pushing for the illegalization of cannabis, since his prior attempt to enforce prohibition of alcohol, failed. He started drawing connections between cannabis and violent crimes, with this story in particular, from 1933, being a big driver. The story is about Victor Licata, an Italian-American immigrant (not a liked class of people at that time) who killed his family that year.
Though Licata was determined to be schizophrenic, then called ‘dementia praecox’, along with several other members of his family who had already been institutionalized, and despite the fact that law enforcement had been actively trying to institutionalize him for years, the story ended up catapulting him to fame as a cannabis-driven ax murderer after it was decided he had been smoking marijuana cigarettes for a few months. Anslinger focused on this story, and stories like it, to connect cannabis to murder.
To give an idea of Anslinger’s all-out racism, and attempt to tie different ethnic and racial groups to marijuana use in order to denigrate it and them, he made this statement at one point: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
And in a tie to violence, he stated “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.” None of this has anything to do with the term ‘420’ directly. It has to do with the connection between violent crime and marijuana use. By the time Anslinger was done, and in the wake of ‘Reefer Madness’ – a ridiculous video of misinformation and racism used to drive fear about cannabis use by tying it to violent crime, cannabis became synonymous with crimes like murder.
While it is often said that 420 is the code for homicide in many places, it’s not easy to find this information without knowing the place in question. However, one location not up for debate is Las Vegas, which uses the code, along with variations, to denote different types of homicide.
Is this a coincidence, or did the term 420 have at least a little to do with homicide codes and cannabis linked to violent crimes? It’s hard to say. But considering all the connections that were built between murder and cannabis, its not that strange to think. To be clear, neither group in San Rafael have ever mentioned anything about this. But the original published story that came out through the flyer, seemed to be based on a misinformed story about police codes, which certainly makes it questionable.
The truth is, like it not, nothing was ever proven for sure about 420 regarding the Waldos or the Bebes. These are all just claims really, with some old letters saved by the former group in a sad effort to prove its point…as if simply having these letters would prove the coining of a term. The current story about the Waldos is a great one, but it sure doesn’t explain why the first written version of it, gave an entirely different reason for its beginning, and this makes the group’s claim questionable in my eyes.
If there is a question as to why people think 420 is a police code, its because it was the first story put out in High Times in 1991, via a flyer that told this version. How that came to be, if we’re still missing the real story, or if a mistake was made along the way, we just don’t know.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a medical professional, I have no formal legal education, and I’ve never been to business school. All information in my articles is sourced from other places, which are always referenced, and all opinions stated are mine, and are made clear to be mine. I am not giving anyone advise of any kind, in any capacity. I am more than happy to discuss topics, but should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a professional in the relevant field for more information.