A casette tape with 4:20 written on front. Via iStock

Photo credit: iStock

420: The Real History Behind Every Stoner’s Favorite Holiday

High There

By High There

April 20, 2022

The Waldos. It’s likely not the first term you associate with everyone’s (at least our) favorite holiday, but should it be?

The history of “420” as a stoner codephrase/special time/celebratory date has a lot of varying explanations; from Pulp Fiction to Bob Dylan, a number of “reasons” behind the special numbers have been discussed. But ultimately the source lies with one unlikely group of teenagers from California.

Today we’re going to delve into the real history behind 420 – where it began, what it means and who helped turn it from a local catchphrase to a national sensation. Let’s get started.

What 420 Isn’t

As mentioned above, there are plenty of assumed reasons behind the special meaning of 420; popular options involve there being four hundred and twenty different compounds in the cannabis plant (false; the minimum number is

and still growing), the number “420” being in California for a cannabis bust (false), and even Bob Dylan’s classic “” (because 12 x 35 = 420; also, false).

But the real truth lies, as it typically does, in the unlikeliest of places.

A photograph of San Rafael High School
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Five Waldos

Dave, Mark, Larry, Jeff and Steve – if you read those names and affectionately thought to yourself “that sounds like a bunch of potheads”, then you would be correct. When these five students from San Rafael High School began meeting every day after school in 1971, they didn’t realize at the time that their spare time activities would change cannabis culture forever.

The five, who had originally become known as

due to their typical penchant of hanging out near a specific school wall, found themselves often feeling out of place among other school activities. As per an interview with TIME Magazine in , “Waldo Dave” (full name Dave Reddix) said “We got tired of the Friday-night football scene with all of the jocks. We were the guys sitting under the stands smoking a doobie, wondering what we were doing there.”

As 4:20 p.m. was close to time when the friends were typically done with school athletics for the day, the five would make plans to gather at their usual spot at their usual time for their usual activities by mentioning the time “4:20” to each other passing through the halls.

“Waldo Steve” (AKA Steve Capper), told the Huffington Post in a

interview that the five “would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis,” due to the group meeting near a statue of scientist Louis Pasteur, “and we eventually dropped the Louis.”

As the Waldos began searching for a purpose beyond getting high, the group began undertaking what they called “safaris”, often with outlandish ends. Among their most infamous: A search for a missing grow op, hidden somewhere in Point Reyes Forest and with a treasure map purportedly provided by the planter themselves. Though the Waldos would never find the mythical plant they continued searching, each week cramming themselves into a car, getting good and high and trundling off on their hunt.

This of itself is a fine local legend and small town tale. But five teenaged smokers from Marin county does not a global phenomenon make. For that we need…

Enter: The Grateful Dead

Multiple connections within the group tied members of the Waldos to the Grateful Dead, legendarily prolific touring band and icon of the counter culture, giving the term 420 both fertile ground and plenty of space to grow.

Both Reddix and Capper would have deep connections to the band; Reddix became a roadie for the group, handling equipment and often smoking up with the band members backstage. Meanwhile, the father of “Waldo Mark” (or Mark Gravich) helped the band with real estate and office space needs, giving members of the five further opportunities to work with the band.

From a

LA Times interview, and as per Capper: “We’d be backstage with them, and we’d be using the term. We’d pass them a joint and use the term “420.”

From there the term seemed to spread like wildfire through the band’s wide fanbase. What had started as a local catchphrase soon became codified language nation-wide, with the time of 4:20 p.m. metamorphosing into the date of April 20 as well. Soon congregations of marijuana enthusiasts – often spearheaded and consisting of “Deadheads”; fans of the Grateful Dead – began gathering at pre-determined times and clandestine locations on the 20th of April, all to share in the company of fellow cannabis consumers.

The term remained relatively unknown and underground until the year 1990, when High Times reporter Steven Bloom first encountered the phrase at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland. Bloom was handed a flyer that read: “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais,” and proceeded a bit into the “history of 420” (though not without its inaccuracies). Bloom would then turn this tidbit into a story the following year, which then helped bring the term into more mainstream culture.

A collection of photographs; not pictured, The Waldos. Via iStock
Photo Credit: iStock

420 in the Wider World

From there, it’s been a fairly relentless tide of 420 references sneaking into pop culture. Even prior to the original High Times story classic films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High had subtle references to the phrase, and future films such as Pulp Fiction and Lost in Translation continued the tradition by showing various time pieces set 4:20 p.m.

And, hand-in-hand with growing legalization of cannabis, celebrations for the “holiday” have expanded both nation-wide and globally. Now 420 celebrations can be found in nearly every corner of the United States and beyond, from Colorado’s annual

to the . And the original five feel a certain sense of pride regarding their claim to cannabis culture.

In the earlier-mentioned LA Times interview, Capper further stated “[The celebrations] were kind of the ground zero of getting weed legalized. It was the beginning of [marijuana] activism and fighting back. The media started reporting on these gatherings and suddenly, April 20th became kind a forum in the media for discussing drug suppression and marijuana legalization.”

As for the Waldos themselves? They typically prefer to keep things at least a bit lowkey. Recent years have seen the group spending time at the

(where they have a special ale dedicated to 420), and this year involve plans to release a limited-edition NFT based around the artwork of . But even with all of the history now attached to their once seemingly-innocuous cypher, the group still find time for hanging with each other.

“We talk to each other every day or every other day, and we still go on safaris every once in awhile,” said Reddix to the LA Times. Adding in, Capper further included “We’ve been at each other’s weddings, our kids’ graduations, bat mitzvahs. It’s certainly a family. All that huge amount of backstory just shows 420 is just the tip of the iceberg of the whole Waldo story and culture.”

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