Origins of language
The English language is a wonderfully vibrant creature. It lives, it breathes, it evolves. Just like our favorite cannabis strains, English is a branch on a family tree that stretches back thousands of years, back through Germanic, Indo-European and pre-Indo-European languages. English contains words from Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, even Native American (squash, chocolate, hurricane) and pretty much any other language you can imagine. Think of it like the AK-47 cannabis strain, with genes (words) from as far afield as Columbia, Mexico, Thailand and Cambodia. It’s the ability of English to absorb new words that has made it so popular the world over.
But what has this to do with the origin of the term 420?
Well, just like English itself, every word and phrase in English also has a genesis, a birth. Most of these origins are ancient but a few of them are more recent. Cannabis culture has gifted us many new words and phrases, some more traceable than others. It’s easy to see why cannabis is called weed, for example, but it’s not so obvious why we call it pot (it’s from the Spanish potoguaya, a type of brandy containing steeped cannabis flower). The term 420 also has a traceable history – it didn’t just pop into the lexicon out of nowhere.
This article will take a look at some of the more popular origin theories (there are some wacky ones) revealing the truth behind the industry’s most iconic term: 420.
It’s a cop thing
Some of the most enduring theories behind the term 420 involve law enforcement. Considering the attitude towards cannabis (prohibition, the war on drugs, astonishing levels of incarceration, the barely-disguised racially-motivated persecution that still goes hand in hand with drug policy in the US etc etc) it’s an easy theory to understand. Cannabis use has long been lumped in with things like violent crime and heroin addiction. Even in today’s era of legalization, cannabis is struggling to shake the artificially-imposed stigma of its past. Indeed, there are still over 40,000 people incarcerated in the US for committing the same cannabis-related ‘crimes’ that thousands of other people and groups now legally profit from. Organizations like the Last Prisoner Project, spearheaded by industry legend, Steve DeAngelo, are actively trying to redress this injustice, but there is a lot of work yet to do.
Many people attribute the term 420 to the California Senate Bill 420, also known as the Medical Marijuana Program Act. This would be a very straightforward conclusion to jump to if the bill wasn’t dated 2003. The use of 420 in cannabis culture predates this bill by at least a few decades but I have to admit, it’s an easy theory to believe.
Others have propounded the theory that 420 is the radio code used by police officers to report drug-related crimes, though the code 420 is actually used in cases of homicide. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are police officers who use 420 as their informal code for sharing a blunt after work (in California at least). It’s a nice thought.
Bob’s your uncle
Two of the more outlandish 420 theories involve Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. They both have a close connection to the herb and they’re both 420 heroes, but they have nothing to do with the source of 420. Some people have suggested 420 is so-called because it’s the day Bob Marley died. He died on May 11th. Others propose it has its origins in Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 and 35. Presumably because 12 x 35 = 420. This has about as much credibility as suggesting 420 has its origin in the English nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence…(at least the blackbirds were baked). Not close and definitely no cigar.
Best of the rest
Okay, what else have we got? Is it Adolf Hitler’s birthday? Err, nope. Are there 420 chemical compounds found in cannabis? If there are, it would be an amazing coincidence. Is April 20th the best day to plant cannabis? Depends where you are in the world. Finally, is 420 the date marijuana was legalized in the Netherlands? No. Would you like to know where it does come from? Okay!
Blame it on the kids
Like Blue Dream, Wedding Cake, OG Kush and a tonne of other delicious cannabis strains, 420 was born in the Golden State of California. Back in 1971, at San Rafael High School, a group of students used to congregate at 4:20 under a statue of Louis Pasteur in order to get high. The phrase actually began life as ‘420 Louis’ in honor of the famous chemist, but the trimmed version is far more punchy.
This group of kids, also known as the ‘Waldos’ (something to do with a wall…) consisted of Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz and Mark Gravich. Legend has it these kids inherited a map that led to a crop of abandoned cannabis plants and, after their 4:20 rendezvous, they would hop in their car and go treasure hunting. They searched for weeks and although the fabled crop repeatedly gave them the slip, their codeword for smoking marijuana kinda stuck.
How did a bunch of kids make 420 so famous?
They were helped by their close association with legendary San Francisco rock band, The Grateful Dead. They hung out at their rehearsals, were popular figures backstage and loved their after-parties. The band helped spread the phrase and it gained even more popularity when High Times printed a piece, twenty years later, that explained the story behind the code.
So there you have it. 420 is not famous because that’s how many bong rips you need before you can talk to God. It isn’t the real number of the beast (or the fax number of the beast). It’s a code used by a bunch of high school kids that share one of the coolest anecdotes in history.