The Meaning of '420' in Cannabis Culture

Female hands rolling a marijuana joint
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Even if you don't use any cannabis products yourself, chances are you know the term "420" has something to do with pot. There are several urban legends about the link between 420 and cannabis, but the real origin story might surprise you.

Marijuana Appreciation Day

Whether expressed as a time of day (4:20), a calendar date (4/20), or a numeral, 420 (that's four-twenty, not four hundred and twenty) is slang for the use and enjoyment of marijuana. In certain weed-friendly cities like Boulder, Colorado, April 20 has come to be known as "Marijuana Appreciation Day" or "Weed Day." The term 420 is also a rallying cry for the marijuana legalization movement, which has gained momentum as states like Colorado, Washington, and California have decriminalized pot. (As of September 2018, recreational marijuana use is legal in nine U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia.)

The Origins of 420

Various urban legends have grown up around the meaning of 420 and its connection to marijuana, but the true story behind it is surprisingly prosaic. In the early 1970s, a small group of hippie stoners at San Rafael High School in California used to meet at a designated location every day at 4:20 p.m. to smoke weed.

They did this so regularly that members of the group—who called themselves the Waldos—began using the expression "420" as a euphemism for toking. The catchphrase spread beyond their immediate circle, beyond the high school they attended, and ultimately beyond California. Within a decade or two, pot smokers across the country were using it.

The Bebes vs. the Waldos

In 2012, a cannabis controversy occurred when a pro-pot website, 420 Magazine, published an article about a man who called himself The Bebe. The man claimed that it was his pals at San Rafael High, called the Bebes, who came up with the term 420. The Waldos, Bebe claimed, were just self-promoting wannabes who happened to attend San Rafael at the same time.

Rob Griffin, the magazine's editor in chief and the author of the article, concluded that Bebe had indeed originated the term 420, even if the Waldos were the ones who popularized it. The Huffington Post picked up on this story the following April 20 and ran an article disputing 420 Magazine's conclusion, arguing that there was no substantiated evidence to support The Bebe's claim. The Waldos, meanwhile, have taken pains to document their links to 420 in the media.

What 420 Doesn't Mean

As with any taboo subject, there are a number of urban legends about what 420 means. Here are just a few:

  • It's the date Bob Marley died. The reggae legend actually succumbed to melanoma on May 11, 1981. Four-twenty doesn't refer to Marley's birthday, either; he was born on February 6, 1945.
  • It's the number of a bill pending in Congress that would make marijuana legal. As of September 2018, the possession of marijuana remains a federal offense.
  • It's the number of chemical compounds found in cannabis, the pot plant. There are actually 483 identified compounds, most notably tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which is what gets you high.