Like many people, I first heard the term “420” in college. I went to the University of Arkansas the early ‘90s, and, in true hippie-party-school tradition, I first smoked cannabis out of a giant Grateful Dead bong. My roommate Brandy was the owner of the bong, which you had to stand up to use, and it stayed lit whenever she was home. One afternoon, a friend referred to Brandy by the nickname “4:19.” When I asked what it meant, he told me she was always early for 4:20.
The friend told the 420 origin story I’ve heard most frequently over the past 25 years: the number was California police code for a pot bust. I had no reason not to believe it, and I didn’t think much more about it until I became a cannabis writer.
Legend has it that High Times coined the phrase, so I reached out to Steve Bloom, a Freedom Leaf Magazine editor who used to be a High Times editor. Bloom’s claim to fame is being the one who “discovered 420” – which, appropriately, happened at a Dead show.
“I started at High Times in ’88 as a news editor, and I wrote a lot about music. I went out to a Dead show at the Oakland Coliseum for New Year’s 1990, and I was walking around in the parking lot, and that’s when I was given the famous 420 flyer. A half-page flyer, which famously said this:
“420 started in San Rafael, CA in the late 70s. It started as a police code for marijuana smoking in progress. After local Heads heard of the police code, they started using the expression ‘420’ when referring to the herb: ‘Let’s go 420, dude.’
“There is something fantastic about getting ripped at 4:20, knowing your brothers and sisters all over the country and even the planet are lighting up and toking up right along with you. Now there’s something even more grand than getting baked on 4/20. We’re talking about the Day of Celebration, the real time to get high, the grand master of all holidays: 4/20, April 20th.
“This is when you must get the day off of work or school. We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais. Just go down Mill Valley, find a stoner, ask where the Bolinas Ridge is. If you make it to Marin, you will definitely find it. Helpful hints: take extra care that nothing is going to go wrong in that minute. No heavy winds, no cops, no messed-up lighters. Get together with your friends and smoke pot hardcore.”
Bloom brought the flyer back to the High Times office in New York City. When he showed it to his fellow writers and editors, they quickly adopted the phrase. “ was just something I spread around the office, told people about,” he said We started to adopt the habit of getting high at 4:20. We used [the time] as a think tank, where we’d come up with cool ideas.”
They also published the flyer in the magazine, and they started getting letters from all over the country in which the authors used the term 420. “Gradually you started to see the term pick up,” says Bloom. “It would come into the magazine through letters, a lot of 420 write-ins.”
One of these letters came from a man who called himself a member of “the Waldos,” a group of friends who claimed they coined the phrase when they were students at San Rafael High School. The creator of the 4:20 flyer Bloom received, the man said, had stolen 420 from them. The whole story about it being a police code was wrong.
“They were high-school students in Marin County who came up with the idea of meeting after school at 4:20, at the Louis Pasteur statue, to get high,” said Bloom. “They had memorabilia, evidence.” This evidence included notes they had written to each other before Bloom got the flyer, in which they used the term to refer to cannabis.
The legend of 420 will continue, and police code or Waldo’s aside, there’s one universal truth. 4:20 or 4/20, no matter which, means that it’s time to get high. On this worldwide cannabis holiday, please share a smoke with someone (or a parking lot full of someones) at 4:20 – but be sure to show up at 4:19.