Everyone knows 420 is a code word for cannabis, but few know why. I asked a friend who said, “I’ve heard a lot of stories—that it’s a police code for weed, that it has to do with the chemical compound or something?”
Others claim it’s Bob Marley’s birthday—which it isn’t—or Hitler’s birthday—which it is, but what’s that got to do with weed?
In fact, the true origin is a delightful tale of teenage stoners at San Rafael High School circa 1971. I love this story for how easily it could be mere myth and for its diligent documentation.
The group of boys—who only allowed their full names to be made public after cannabis became legal in California—were nicknamed “the Waldos,” because they were known to hang out against a wall.
According to Steve Capper, a friend’s brother was in the Coast Guard and had been growing some weed. He was afraid he would get busted by his commanding officer, so he told Capper and his friends they could pick it for free if they wanted it. He even provided them a treasure map.
Capper, on the podcast Criminal, explained, “We’re like, teenage boys. ‘Free weed? Are you kidding?’”
They agreed to meet at 4:20pm at the Louis Pasteur statue in front of San Rafael High School. They got high, piled into a Chevy Impala and ventured off in search of the rumored field of weed.
They didn’t find it that day, nor the next, nor weeks later, though they tried in earnest. The search became a joyful ritual in its own right. They would remind each other of the plan to meet, saying, “4:20 Louie” to each other. Eventually this was shortened to simply 4:20.
It seems implausible that a code word between high school buds could become recognized throughout the world—until you learn that Dave Reddix’s brother was friends with Grateful Dead–bassist Phil Lesch.
San Rafael and the Waldos were able to take official credit for their code word in 2017 when the Oxford English Dictionary added “420” to its lexicon.
Others claimed to know the true roots of 420, but only the Waldos produced evidence, including mentioning “420” in a 1974 San Rafael High School newspaper and a postmarked note that had accompanied some pot and described it as, “a little 420 for your weekend.”
Author’s note: It remains illegal to smoke pot on a high school campus, so this publication does not officially endorse meeting at Louie for that purpose.—CK