.The Backstory on ‘420’

In the smoky haze of counterculture and clandestine meetups, the term “420” whispers tales of rebellion, mystique and the universal language of cannabis aficionados. While the air is thick with rumors—an alleged police dispatch code or an elusive chemical compound—the truth is far more rooted in the lore of youthful daring and adventure in 1970s Marin.

First, let’s dispense with the myths of Bob Marley’s birthday celebrations (it’s Feb. 6—see One Love if you don’t believe me). The true origin of “420” is nothing short of an epic befitting the most imaginative of stoner sagas. This journey transports us back to 1971, within the verdant grounds of San Rafael High School, where a group of audacious teens, known colloquially as “The Waldos,” embarked on a quest that would unknowingly etch their code into the annals of counter-cultural history.

The narrative unfolds with The Waldos, so named for their penchant for lounging against a particular wall (see what they did there?), stumbling upon a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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On the podcast Criminal, hosted by Phoebe Judge, former student Steve Capper recounts his folklore-worthy tale that includes a Coast Guard brother, a hidden cannabis treasure and a map that promised untold delights—namely “free weed.” The Waldos’ adventure was set for 4:20pm, a time that would soon transcend its humble beginnings.

As Capper recounted on the podcast: “I was sitting on our hangout spot: the wall at San Rafael High School. And a friend of mine, Bill, came up to me, and he said, ‘Hey, Steve, my brother’s in the Coast Guard, and he’s been growing some weed. He’s afraid he’s going to get busted by his commanding officer. He says we can pick it. Here’s a map he drew for us.’”

Their rendezvous was set to commence at a Louis Pasteur statue on campus. However, despite their diligent searches, the crudely drawn map was bunk, and they found no magical weed garden. Yet, the ritual, camaraderie and code—“4:20 Louie,” later shortened to “420”—endured.

“We thought it was a joke then,” David Reddix, a Waldo classmate turned filmmaker and CNN cameraperson, told the New York Post in 2018. “We still do.”

What began as an inside joke burgeoned into a global emblem, celebrated far and wide, its roots traced back to a cheeky, intrepid spirit and a band of high school friends, which also included pals Larry Schwartz, Jeff Noel and Mark Gravich. And thanks to a serendipitous link between Dave Reddix’s brother and world-touring Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesch, the coinage spread.

The Waldos’ legacy was cemented in 2017 when “420” found its rightful place in the Oxford English Dictionary, a testament to their original claim, backed by indisputable evidence from high school newspapers and postmarked notes laced with cannabis lore.

A few years ago, to commemorate the legacy and its creators, fellow Marinite and wristwatch manufacturer Barry Cohen created the 420Waldos watch, which features a marijuana leaf on its face and another leaf on the back. It also boasts two additional leaves on the straps. Likewise, Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. once released a commemorative seasonal brew, “The Waldos Special Ale.”

1 COMMENT

  1. There are a few variations to this story, depending on who you talk to

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