The History of 4/20

Stephen Andrews
20 Apr 2024

Four Twenty without discussion is the single biggest day of the year to celebrate cannabis culture. In anticipation of the unofficial holiday, cannabis retailers prepare some of the hottest deals of the year. April 20th is traditionally the biggest sales day for legal weed. In 2023, legal shops generated a record sum of $178 million, a number that is likely to be surpassed this and every year. But what is the history behind 4/20 and how it became so popular?

The story of Four Twenty goes back more than fifty years ago when a group of San Rafael students started a ritual of smoking weed every day at 4:20 pm. They called themselves “The Waldos” and they would pass in the school hall and say “420” to each other as an undercover way of signaling that they wanted to smoke pot! “Waldos” referred to the wall they would sit on at their school.

This quickly established as a code for smoking weed and it spread like wildfire. Fast forward in time, 4/20 today is a centerpiece of cannabis culture, the fiber of community life, an invitation for friends, roommates, classmates, family, that the better part of the day is almost there. 

Of course, there are also other popular theories about the origin of 4/20. One of them says that 420 was a code used by California police, or that the numbers were a penal code for marijuana, but this is probably not true. The only police radio code that supposedly uses 420 is in Las Vegas and it's for a homicide. 

From a Secret Code to Unofficial Marijuana Holiday 

“The Waldos” probably gave a little thought on how famous their code word for secret weed smoking would become one day. That it will become an annual holy-day for everyone who likes toking weed. An open celebration of cannabis culture, and appreciation of the soothing therapeutic and recreational benefits of the plant. 

While 4/20 goes back all the way to the early 70s, it wasn’t actually until the early 90s when its popularity skyrocketed. According to cannabis lore, that’s when a group of Deadheads in Oakland handed out flyers with an invitation for everyone to get together and smoke weed at 4:20 pm. One of the flyers was picked by famous cannabis reporter, Steve Bloom, who went on to print the numbers for High Times magazine. The outlet acknowledged back in 1998 that the “Waldos” were the original creators of 420.

As a code word, Four Twenty also entered the corporate world. It became a clandestine signal among colleagues that the shift is over. Time to couch lock and stare at the ceiling with that great new idea for business that will probably escape the mind by the next morning. 

In cannabis culture, Four Twenty became a way to organize the day, to take a break or a polite time when everyone around at home can come for a puff. Not necessarily that everyone smokes at 4:20, though. It’s any time convenient enough hour to sign out. 

Four Twenty also has a protest undertone. In the age of social media, users across the U.S. rang in this special day by calling for legalization of weed nationwide and of course posting pictures of smoking weed. From Snoop Dogg to Seth Rogen, many icons and legends participate in the deluge of 4/20 hazy posts. 

And probably one of the most beautiful things about 4/20 is that so many events and community gatherings take place to mark the day. From LA to New York, nearly every major city nowadays has an event where thousands of people flock in to enjoy music, barbeque, drinks, and of course a few hits. Traditions like that were only ever interrupted during the pandemic, but most have resumed ever since. 

Even if you don’t attend any of the “official” gatherings, just picture the perfect April 20th scene. You are somewhere in nature, enjoying the spring sun and breeze. Perhaps tossing a footbag around with a Bob Marley song playing in the background. The picnic basket is full with pre-rolls, sweet and crunchy snacks, soda, and perhaps a can of beer. Pretty much the perfect backdrop for Four Twenty. 

To all the tokers, bong hitters, munchie eaters, weed graters, and dedicated homegrowers novice and experienced, to all the witches and wizards out there who’ve discovered the powers of the magical plant… 4/20 is for all of you!

Happy Four Twenty, pals... and don't bogart that joint!

Also read on Soft Secrets:

Where and When Are Cannabis Festivals?

Marijuana Greatest Moments in Popular Culture

New Paper Details History of Cannabis Use

Stephen Andrews