What Is 4/20? A Brief History and How To Celebrate

Associated with marijuana, April 20 (4/20), every year—known as "420"—has become something of an unofficial holiday. Many cannabis users mark the day by smoking weed. But what is the history behind this celebratory day for marijuana lovers and its 420 moniker?

4/20 origins

The origins of the term "420" date back to the 1970s. A group of five high school teenagers in California used to meet at 4:20 p.m. each week in search of a cannabis plant that was supposedly left behind in a forest by a U.S. Coast Guard member who could no longer tend to the crop. They met at 4:20 p.m. as they were all athletes and had sports practice to attend before that time.

The group was nicknamed "the Waldos" as they used to hang out by a wall outside their high school in San Rafael.

The Waldos met at least once a week at the Louis Pasteur statue outside their school to scour the Point Reyes Forest nearby using a treasure map that some say was provided by the plant owner himself.

Steve Capper, one of the Waldos, told the Huffington Post in 2017: "We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis.

"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," Capper said, adding "We never actually found the patch."

4/20 becomes a code word

While they weren't successful in finding the hidden cannabis plant, the Waldos managed to introduce a new lasting code word for weed smokers.

Capper told the Huffington Post: "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?' It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it."

"Our teachers didn't know what we were talking about. Our parents didn't know what we were talking about," he added.

The use of the term spread further thanks to the group's connection to The Grateful Dead. The legendary rock band was based in the Marin County hills at the time, just blocks from the high school that the Waldos attended.

The father of Mark Gravitch (one of the Waldos) managed real estate for the band, while the brother of Dave Reddix (another Waldos member) managed a Grateful Dead sideband. The brother was also good friends with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

The Grateful Dead practiced at a rehearsal hall in San Rafael, California: "So we used to go hang out and listen to them play music and get high while they're practicing for gigs," Reddix told the Huffington Post.

"But I think it's possible my brother Patrick might have spread it through Phil Lesh. And me, too, because I was hanging out with Lesh and his band [as a roadie] when they were doing a summer tour my brother was managing," he added.

Capper said: "We'd go with [Gravitch's] dad, who was a hip dad from the '60s. There was a place called Winterland 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," he added.

Ways to celebrate

Watch a weed documentary

Take a deep dive into the history of cannabis and the controversies surrounding it today by watching a marijuana documentary, such as The Grass is Greener, The Culture High and The Legend of 420.

Geek out on a marijuana podcast

Explore more topics around cannabis in the podcast Brave New Weed, which offers "high-minded conversations for the post-prohibition era," according to its website.

Try some cannabis recipes

Try a recipe or two from the book Bong Appétit: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Weed, which is "for a new generation interested in making serious, sophisticated food—with weed," according to its description on Amazon.

Learn about pot etiquette

From how to bring pot to a dinner party and "respectfully use it as a guest" to giving it as a gift and "how to behave at a dispensary," learn all about the social etiquettes around cannabis from the book Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis from Dispensaries to Dinner Parties.

April 20 marijuana 420 Denver 2010
A woman smoking marijuana at 4/20 event on April 20, 2010 outside the state capitol building in Denver, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images