420: Why People Smoke Pot on Hitler’s Birthday

It’s not police code for pot. It’s not Jerry Garcia’s birthday, or the day that Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin died. It’s not the number of active chemicals in marijuana. Yet all around the world, 420 is recognized as stoner code for… For what exactly?

Anything to do with weed, is the general consensus. Whether it’s 4:20 in the AM or PM or 4/20 on the calendar, stoners have been using the date/time/number as an excuse to get high for decades. It’s an inside joke that nobody really seems to understand. So how did the seemingly random number acquire its drug connotations?

I’ll give you a few more hints: It’s not because April 20th, 1880 is the birthday of Adolph Hitler and it’s not because the Columbine shootings happened on April 20th, 1999. It’s not even because Albert Hoffman took the first deliberate LSD trip at 4:20 on April 19th, 1943.

Instead, the ambiguous drug-code came about because a group of high school students were looking for a magical, lost crop of weed in 1971.

They were called the Waldos, due to their penchant for hanging out by the wall outside San Rafael High School in Northern California. The Waldos coining the term has been documented in many places. The best article I’ve found on the subject is from the Huffington Post. The Waldos do have some proof of the matter, documenting their use of the term in the early 70’s. For much of the story, however, and as to how the term was spread, we must rely on hearsay and speculation.

The story starts like this: “One day in the Fall of 1971 – harvest time – the Waldos got word of a Coast Guard service member who could no longer tend his plot of marijuana plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. A treasure map in hand, the Waldos decided to pluck some of this free bud,” according to the Huffington Post.

The Waldos, being the good high school athletes that they were, agreed to meet up after practice, at 4:20 PM, to go search for the crop.

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20,” according to “Waldo Steve,” one of the students. “It originally started out 4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis.”

Again and again they went out in search of the crop. Again and again, they were unable to turn anything up. Maybe it’s because they were high as all holy hell. “We’d meet at 4:20 and get in my old ’66 Chevy Impala and, of course, we’d smoke instantly and smoke all the way out to Pt. Reyes and smoke the entire time we were out there. We did it week after week,” Waldo Steve told the Huffington Post. “We never actually found the patch.”

Despite this, the term 420 seemed to stick. Steve elaborates, “I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic. He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ … Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Makes sense, when you think about it. A random, stupid stoner code that quickly lost all of its original meaning and came to signify all-things-weed.

The real question is how such a meaningless term gained traction. Today, 420 is known internationally as a stoner-codeword. It was even used to name the California legislature’s medical marijuana law. The bill was named “SB420.”

It may come as little surprise, but it has a lot to do with the Grateful Dead.

As San Francisco’s The Haight was being overrun by “speed freaks” and “con artists,” the Grateful Dead headed for the hills of Marin County, not far from San Rafael High School. The various Waldos had several connections with the Dead. One of the boys, Mark, had a father who took care of their real estate. Another Waldo had an older brother who managed a Dead sideband, Too Loose to Truck, of which David Crosby and his good friend Phil Lesh were members. Patrick, the older brother managing Too Loose to Truck, smoked weed with Phil Lesh on multiple occasions. At some point, he figures, he must have used the term 420.

The Waldos also found themselves frequenting parties and rehearsals of the Grateful Dead. “”There was a place called Winterland,” says Waldo Steve, “and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.”

Ryan Grim, author of the Huffington Post story, decided to just go ahead and ask former Grateful Dead basist Phil Lesh, as he was walking off stage following a Dead concert. Lesh “confirmed that Patrick is a friend and said he ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ if the Waldos had coined 420. He wasn’t sure, he said, when the first time he heard it was. ‘I do not remember. I’m very sorry. I wish I could help.'”

We forgive you Phil.

The Grateful Dead, notorious for touring relentlessly, took the term on the road with them. When High Times got a hold of it, it went global. “I started incorporating it into everything we were doing,” High Times editor Steve Hager explained to the Huffington Post. “I started doing all these big events – the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup – and we built everything around 420. The publicity that High Times gave it is what made it an international thing. Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture. But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.”

And today? Well today is 4/20. Thousands, potentially millions, of stoners across the globe are celebrating this faux-holiday by ingesting as much THC as their bloodstreams can hold. Why? Frankly, it’s an excuse to do so. Like the term itself, the “weed holiday” is a chance for people to feel unified, as pot smokers, as hippies, as whatever it is that they believe they are. And no, most of them probably don’t have the slightest idea where the term 420 comes from. Maybe that’s for the best. The last thing we need is an annual storytelling tradition. Nothing could be more mind numbing, after all, than phased hippie storytellers, nearly incapacitated from a long day of smoking, slowly drawling  the arbitrary origins of a truly arbitrary number.


Writer Bob Humamachi lived in a mirror universe as a young boy’s imaginary friend until the boy disowned him in the late 90’s. Bob spent over a decade wandering aimlessly before finding the Heated Forest, a place where no friend is imaginary and where love lasts forever. This is his first contribution to THF.