The Meaning of 420 in Relation to Marijuana

Counterculture Marijuana Holiday Celebrated
 Jeff Vinnick / Contributor / Getty Images

Even if you yourself don't smoke marijuana, chances are you know the catchphrase 420 has something to do with pot. There are several urban legends that purport to explain the link between 420 and cannabis, but the real story of its origin might surprise you.

The Meaning of 420 

Whether expressed as the time of day (4:20), a calendar date (4/20), or a numeral, 420 is slang for the use and enjoyment of marijuana. April 20 has come to be known in certain weed-friendly cities like Boulder, Colo., as "Marijuana Appreciation Day" or " Weed Day." It's also a rallying cry for the marijuana legalization movement which has gained momentum as states like Colorado and Washington have decriminalized pot.

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

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 were going to school at 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 made the term popular. The Huffington Post picked up on this story the following April 20. That article disputed 420 Magazine's conclusion, saying there was no substantiated evidence to support the Bebes' 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 Feb. 6, 1945.
  • It's the number of a bill pending in Congress that would make marijuana legal. As of July 2017, the possession of marijuana remains a federal offense.
  • It's the number of chemical compounds found in cannabis, the pot plant. There are 483 identified compounds, most notably tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which is what gets you high.