From viral memes to bills in Congress, 420 has evolved from very humble origins to fully burn its way into popular culture. Initially utilized as a shorthand for cannabis itself, 420’s visual similarity to a calendar date would eventually inspire crowds to gather each April 20 in celebration of all things cannabis.
Boasting a history that includes everything from treasure maps to the Grateful Dead, 420 is a cultural legacy, slang term and holiday all rolled into one. Ready for a refresher? Check out our cheat sheet below to learn about the group of high schoolers who first concocted the phrase, how the holiday is celebrated today and a brief debunking of some major misconceptions.
What Is 420?
Simply put, 420 means weed. Before it gained widespread popularity, the term offered a practical purpose as it allowed those in the know to discretely reference cannabis without anyone else being the wiser. Today, however, the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Part of that has to do with 420 serving as the inspiration for large-scale celebrations devoted to cannabis that takes place, fittingly, on April 20 (4/20) each year, with many choosing to light up exactly when the clock hits 4:20 pm to commemorate the occasion. As acceptance and interest in cannabis have continued to expand in recent years, the form of 420 celebrations—once relegated to “if you know, you know” meetups—has radically transformed into major productions headlined by top talent.
Where Did the Term 420 Originate From?
Despite what your uncle may have told you, here’s the real, honest backstory behind 420: Some high school kids from Northern California invented it. More specifically, it was a group of Marin County teenagers who called themselves the Waldos.
As they’ve recounted numerous times, in 1971, the group was given a map that purportedly led to a hidden cannabis crop growing somewhere in West Marin. The phrase “420” was thus concocted as a way for group members to confirm their plans to meet at 4:20 pm after school each day to search for the prized marijuana. Though they never found it, the term stuck around, morphing into a sneaky group synonym for cannabis. One of the Waldos would go on to work sound for legendary psychedelic rockers the Grateful Dead, bringing his turn of phrase with him and unwittingly setting the stage for 420 to obtain global appeal as it caught on and spread from there.
Later, the Waldos would acknowledge they were as surprised as anyone to see 420 showing up on benches and backpacks across the planet, while Amsterdam’s reputation as a pot consumer’s mecca and host site for top cannabis cups would further infuse the term into the culture. Finally, the onset of progressive laws aimed at expanding access to cannabis—starting with, not coincidentally, California’s Prop 215 in 1996—offered the possibility of less risky group gatherings focused on the plant, paving the way for our modern era of April 20 festivities.
How Is 420 Celebrated?
There’s technically no correct way to celebrate 420, though most revelers would suggest consuming cannabis in some form. In cities and states with progressive cannabis laws on the books, public gatherings are often organized to commemorate the day, while others are quite content to get together with a few friends and share a joint at the appointed time.
As a shopping opportunity, many brands often offer their best deals a-la Black Friday leading up to April 20, while others debut special, limited-edition products. Beyond its appeal as a party, April 20 is also often utilized as an opportunity to educate and advocate for progress still to come in the form of marches, rallies and informational symposiums.
How Popular Is 420 Today?
In a word: extremely. Though there was a time where you could talk about “getting some 420” with your friend in front of a parent and hope to pull it off, the phrase is hard to miss these days. That said, it continues to hold a special place in the culture as a nickname for cannabis that simply has no peer.
As far as the popularity of celebrating 420 goes, the number of events to choose from seems to rise each year. Now featuring once-unthinkable components like paid sponsors and licensed on-site sales and consumption, the appeal of April 20 continues to grow in stature and scale with every passing spring.
I Heard 420 Was a Reference to the Police Code for a Weed Bust. Is That True?
As noted above, 420 was invented by a group of high school students in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the truth is often buried under a veritable avalanche of misinformation. Some of the most popular 420 origin myths include the suggestion that it stands for the police code for a marijuana arrest; that it represents the number of chemicals/compounds found in cannabis; or that it’s tied to the occasion of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. These are all entirely false, but despite readily available evidence to the contrary, these myths continue to resonate within pockets of cannabis culture both domestic and abroad. Want more? Snopes has a vast collection of 420 myths to explore.