Why Is Marijuana Called 420? [The Moniker Explained]

Why the number 420 is associated with weed

According to Jonathan Green, a ‘slang’ scholar, there are at least 1,200 slang terms for marijuana, and several hundred more to describe being stoned. One of the main reasons why there are so many terms is because of weed’s long history of being illegal. Those who used it didn’t want to get caught, so they coined specific phrases and words, which meant they could effectively speak in code.

Each time the authorities learned the latest term, someone invented a new one. That’s why there are some weird and wonderful slang words for cannabis, including:

  • Houdini: Because users escape reality.
  • Ditch Weed: Low-THC Mary Jane that grows on the side of the road.
  • The Kind: Also known as ‘da kine,’ this term refers to high-quality weed.
  • Catnip: Fake or inferior cannabis.
  • Nixon: Low-grade weed sold as top-shelf marijuana.

For those who are passionate about cannabis, however, the most essential marijuana slang term is ‘420’. It is so ingrained in weed culture that it is now the official day of cannabis!

What Does 420 Mean?

As you’ll discover, the meaning behind 420 comes from a reasonably straightforward source: A group of High School students who liked to get stoned. On April 20 every year, cannabis lovers gather to showcase their passion for pot. Known to some as the ‘Christmas of weed,’ 4/20 day involves parties and celebrations in certain American cities.

In Denver, ‘420 on the Block’ has grown into a three-day festival involving music and marijuana. It attracts over 15,000 people annually, and the figure is swelling each year.

Even in London, England, where weed is not legal, thousands of people gather at Hyde Park to celebrate 4/20 day each year. Of course, they have to be careful not to use pot in public, or else they face arrest.

There are a host of myths surrounding the reason why 420 became such a big deal in the marijuana world, but one story stands out as being more factual than the others.

420 – The REAL Story

why is pot called 420

The story begins at San Rafael High School in California’s Marin County in 1971. Five high school students, known as ‘the Waldos’, started a routine where they gathered in front of a Louis Pasteur statue to smoke weed. The group consisted of Jeffrey Noel, Mark Gravich, Larry Schwartz, Steve Capper, and Dave Reddix.

In an interview with High Times, Capper explained how the group of teenagers would sit on the wall of their high school and taunt people. They mocked cheerleaders and the so-called ‘greasers’ with their fast cars. However, the group enjoyed stand-up comedy, the Marx Brothers, and marijuana more than anything else.

According to the story, a friend of the group gave them a ‘treasure map’ which pointed to a secret marijuana patch near Point Reyes Peninsula. The friend’s brother was the grower, so in theory, the Waldos had easy access to weed – not an easy feat in the early 1970s. However, Reddix admits that they never found the plot. School finished at 3:10 pm, but the guys had after-school activities that lasted around an hour.

As a result, they agreed to meet in front of the Pasteur statue at precisely 4:20 pm to smoke the weed. During school, the friends would greet one another by saying “420 Louis”, a reminder to meet at the statue for a smoking session at 4:20 pm.

The 420 Code Spreads

Although the Waldos were fans of New Riders of the Purple Sage, Reddix got a job as a roadie for Phil Lesh, the famous bass guitar player for the Grateful Dead. Capper isn’t entirely sure how it happened, but the term ‘420’ quickly spread in the ‘Deadhead’ (nickname for obsessive fans of the Grateful Dead) community.

Allegedly, in December 1990, Oakland-based Deadheads passed out flyers telling people to smoke ‘420’ at 4:20 pm on April 20 of the following year. At some point, a reporter from High Times, Steve Bloom, received the flyer, which the magazine published in 1991. Bloom didn’t take credit for the expression, and in 1998, High Times published an article stating that the Waldos ‘invented’ the term.

Controversy followed. In 2012, 420 Magazine published an article which claimed that another group of San Rafael teenagers were the first to come up with the phrase. In the article, a man called “The Bebe” claimed that he and his friends were the ‘inventors’ of the term and that The Waldos were ‘self-promoting wannabes.’

420 Myths

In the end, the story behind 420 day is rather standard, but it hasn’t stopped people from making absurd connections. Here are a few that range from silly to outright insane.

Hitler’s Birthday

One of the most bizarre was the suggestion that 420 relates to Adolf Hitler’s birthday since the evil dictator was born on April 20. There is no evidence that he ever used marijuana.

Commemoration of Bob Marley

Many people know the Reggae legend first and foremost as a cannabis advocate, so it makes sense that they associate 420 with him. However, the suggestion that it marks his passing or his birth is false because there is no link. He was born on February 6, 1945, and died on May 11, 1981, and neither the time of his death or birth was 4:20 am or 4:20 pm.

Police Code

A couple of more reasonable explanations relate to the law. There was a rumor that ‘420’ was the radio call code the San Rafael Police Department used to describe marijuana smoking in progress. The police department denies that such a code ever existed. Others suggest that 420 was the penal code for cannabis use, but again, that isn’t true.

A Bob Dylan Song

In the song “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35,” Dylan repeatedly says, “Everybody must get stoned!” If you multiply 12 x 35, you get 420, but alas, this is likely nothing more than a coincidence.

The Number of Chemical Compounds in Cannabis

This is not the answer because, at the time of writing, scientists have found way more than 420 compounds in marijuana.

A Bill Pending in Congress

The suggestion here is that there is (or was) a Bill #420 pending in Congress, that would legalize weed on a federal level. Sadly, no such bill exists, and it could be some time before it happens.

420 in Pop Culture

Once the term spread, it became an unstoppable juggernaut. Anyone who has ever watched Pulp Fiction might recall that several of the clocks in the movie show the time as 4:20. In the Hot Tub Time Machine, the hotel room’s number is 420. Of course, it could merely be a case of cannabis users paying more attention to instances where they see the number.

Yet another instance of 420 in pop culture happened in Fast Times at Ridgemont High way back in 1982. In the movie, Forest Whitaker plays an irate football player who helps his team demolish their opponents by a scoreline of 42-0. Incidentally, Sean Penn plays the role of stoner in the movie.

In a season finale of 24: Legacy, the main character enters a room numbered 420 as the clock ticks down towards zero. In one episode of Mad Men, Don Draper’s agency had a meeting with American Airlines, and the presentation took place on April 20. A few episodes later, there were scenes depicting characters getting high.

In Season 7, Episode 12 of Family Guy, the episode is called ‘420’. As you can guess by the name, the main plot involves Brian the dog campaigning for the legalization of weed in Quahog. The Mayor passes a law legalizing the herb, but a wealthy businessman is angry because hemp threatens his newspaper industry (a nod to the influence of William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s).

He bribes Brian to begin an anti-marijuana campaign, and the drug becomes illegal once again. The Family Guy 420 episode received praise for the sharp plot and significant musical number, although Venezuela banned it.

In Colorado, the Interstate-70 highway’s 420-mile marker was replaced by a 419.99-mile sign because the 420-mile sign keeps getting stolen!

What Does 420 Mean Today?

Although the Waldos did not make any money from inventing the term ‘420’, each of the group has found success in life. Capper runs a specialty lending institution, although Bernie Madoff scammed him and many others. Reddix works as a credit analyst, and Capper is his boss!

According to Capper, the other members of the group also have decent careers. It is somewhat reassuring to know that the Waldos keep in touch. One works in the printing and graphics niche, another is head of a division in a roofing and gutter firm, while the other works as head of marketing for a Napa Valley winery.

As a business owner, Capper must remain focused, so he seldom smokes weed anymore. However, hundreds of thousands of people around the world do so on April 20, thanks to the five Waldos.

Regardless of who came up with the phrase, April 20 is a national holiday of sorts for marijuana lovers. People describe it as “half celebration, half call to action” and is indisputably the day for cannabis advocates to break the law openly. On April 20, 2013, for instance, thousands of people illegally smoked weed in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco – years before the herb became legal for recreational use in the state.

California Senate Bill 420 was introduced in 2003 to regulate cannabis use, a deliberate reference of course to 420 Day. So, it doesn’t matter where the expression came from – it exists, and it’s only going to get more popular.