AP Explains: 4/20 grew from humble roots to marijuana’s high holiday

SEATTLE — Saturday marks marijuana culture’s biggest holiday, 4/20, when college students gather — at 4:20 p.m. — in clouds of smoke on campus quads and pot shops in legal pot states thank their customers with discounts.

This year’s edition gives activists the opportunity to reflect on how far their movement has come, with recreational weed now allowed in nearly half the states and the nation’s capital. Many states have introduced “social equity” measures to help communities of color, most affected by the drug war, reap financial benefits from legalization. And the White House has shown openness to marijuana reform.

Here’s a look at the history of 4/20:

The origin of the date, and the term ‘420’ in general, was long unclear. Some claimed it referred to a police code for marijuana possession or that it was derived from Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35”, with the refrain “Everyone needs to get stoned” – 420 is the product of 12 times 35.

But the prevailing explanation is that it started in the 1970s with a group of bell-bottomed friends from San Rafael High School, in California’s Marin County, north of San Francisco, who called themselves “the Waldos.” A friend’s brother feared being arrested for some cannabis he was growing in the woods near nearby Point Reyes, so he signed a map and allowed the teens to harvest the crop, the story goes .

In the fall of 1971, at 4:20 p.m., just after classes and football practice, the group met at the school statue of chemist Louis Pasteur, smoked a joint and went looking for the marijuana field. They never found it, but their private lexicon – “420 Louie” and later just “420” – would take on a life of its own.

The Waldos kept postmarked letters and other artifacts from the 1970s that referenced “420,” which they now keep in a bank vault, and when the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in 2017, it listed some of those documents as having the earliest recorded use .

A brother of one of the Waldos was a close friend of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, as Lesh once confirmed in an interview with the Huffington Post, now HuffPost. The Waldos started hanging out in the band’s circle and the lingo spread.

Fast forward to the early 1990s: Steve Bloom, a reporter for the cannabis magazine High Times, was at a Dead show when he was handed a flyer urging people to “meet on April 20 at 4:20 p.m. for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mount Tamalpais.” High Times published it.

“It’s a phenomenon,” one of the Waldos, Steve Capper, now 69, once told The Associated Press. “Most things die within a few years, but this goes on and on. It’s not like one day someone is going to say, ‘Okay, Cannabis New Year is now on June 23rd.'”

While the Waldos coined the term, the people who distributed the flyer at the Dead Show — and made April 20 a holiday — remain unknown.

With weed of course.

Some celebrations are bigger than others: Denver’s Mile High 420 Festival, for example, typically draws thousands of people and bills itself as the largest free 4/20 event in the world. Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has also drawn huge crowds, but the gathering was canceled this year as organizers cited a lack of financial sponsorship and city budget cuts.

College quads and statehouse lawns are also known for hosting 4/20 celebrations, with the University of Colorado Boulder historically being among the largest, but not so much since administrators banned the annual smoke party more than a decade ago.

Some breweries are making beers that are 420-themed but not peppered, including SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta, which is hosting a 420 music festival this weekend and whose founders attended the University of Colorado.

Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, California, releases its “Waldos’ Special Ale” every year on April 20, in collaboration with the coiners of the term. That’s where the Waldos will be this Saturday to taste the beer, for which they “selected hops that smell and taste like the best marijuana,” one Waldo, Dave Reddix, said via email.

4/20 has also become a major industry event, with vendors coming together to try each other’s wares.

The number of states allowing recreational marijuana has grown to 24 after recent legalization campaigns were successful in Ohio, Minnesota and Delaware. Fourteen more states allow it for medical purposes, including Kentucky, where medical marijuana legislation passed last year will take effect in 2025. Other states only allow products low in THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, for certain medical conditions.

But marijuana is still illegal under federal law. It is listed with drugs like heroin under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no federally accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

However, the Biden administration has taken some steps toward marijuana reform. The president has pardoned thousands of people convicted of “simple possession” on federal lands and in the District of Columbia.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be reclassified as Schedule III, which would confirm its medical use under federal law.

According to a Gallup poll last fall, 70% of adults support legalization, the highest level the polling firm has recorded to date and more than double the roughly 30% who supported it in 2000.

Vivian McPeak, who helped found Seattle’s Hempfest more than three decades ago, reflected on how much the marijuana industry has evolved in his lifetime.

“It’s surreal to drive past stores that sell cannabis,” he said. “A lot of people laughed at us and said, ‘This will never happen.’”

McPeak described 4/20 as a “mixed bag” these days. Despite the progress of the legalization movement, many smaller growers are struggling to compete with large producers, he said, and many Americans are still behind bars due to marijuana convictions.

“We can celebrate the victories we have achieved, and we can also strategize and organize to advance the cause,” he said. “Despite the complacency some people feel, we still have work to do. We have to keep earning that shoe leather until we get everyone out of jails and prisons.”

For the Waldos, 4/20 above all means a good time.

“We are not political. We’re jokers,” Capper has said. ‘But there was a time we cannot forget, when it was secret and surreptitious. …The energy of that time was more charged, more exciting in a way.

“I’m not saying that’s all good; it is not right that they are putting people in jail,” he continued. “You wouldn’t want to go back there.”


Associated Press writer Claire Rush contributed from Portland, Oregon.