What Does 420 Mean? The Origin & History of the Weed Friendly Day

As of April 2022, at least 18 states have legalized recreational weed. 

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The number 420 has become a phenomenon closely associated with smoking weed, even turning April 20 into the holiday that’s celebrated by lighting up, and getting high. But how did this iconic day come to be? 

As of April 2022, at least 18 states have legalized recreational weed. 

Where did 420 originate?

According to Larry "Ratso" Sloman’s book, “Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana,” the number 420 stems back to 1971 in San Rafael, California where a bunch of teenagers who called themselves the Waldos. The group told HuffPost about their quest for a secret weed garden that they claim sparked it all. 

The Waldos said they heard rumors of a Coast Guard service member who left his plot of marijuana plants unattended. In an attempt to find the treasure trove of cannabis, the Waldos met at 4:20 pm near a Louis Pasteur statue outside of their high school. 

As a way of conveying the plan, the group started using the phrase “420 Louis.” While they never actually found the mysterious weed garden, they did start to use the word “420” as a way of talking about smoking. 

But how did the term extend from a group of teenagers in California to the entire world?

While there’s no direct evidence, the group said it’s likely because of The Grateful Dead. During the ‘70s, The Dead were practicing in San Rafael, and an older brother of one of the Waldos was friends with bassist Phil Lesh. The Waldos said they smoked with the band a few times and suspect the term was spread that way.

Throughout the years, many theories emerged about the number’s origins—some claimed it came from a Bob Dylan song, ("Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” multiplying the numbers to equal 420). Some think it was the old California police code for marijuana being sold (it’s actually the code for a homicide). People also think it has something to do with Hitler, since 4/20 is his birthday, but there’s no direct link.

But the Waldos are certain that they’re the ones who started it, and they have the receipts to show it. They said they still own a flag with 420 on it, and old letters postmarked from the ‘70s with 420 written on them.

Regardless of its humble beginnings, the meaning of 420 and its subsequent holiday in April have become a worldwide celebration.

Weed has since become more mainstream since the ‘70s—though it’s still classified as a Schedule I Drug under federal law. Many states have moved to decriminalize or legalize the weed, including California —the supposed birthplace of 420 — which legalized recreational cannabis in 2016. Ten other states and Washington D.C. have also legalized recreational cannabis.