Next week cannabis users all over New Mexico and the rest of the world will celebrate the plant with festivals and parties. But why is the stoner holiday celebrating all things cannabis held on April 20? What’s the significance behind the number 420?
If you’ve come here searching for solid answers about the history of 420, it’s best that you turn back now, Dear Reader. You’ll find no answers here—just a series of whispered rumors, half-forgotten stories and hazy brags, passing each other like schools of fish in murky water. That’s because these slippery threads are all we’ve really had to hold on to.
But someone has come forward with documents proving that they’re the one true origin of 420. Is it a hoax—an impossible story? Read on to find out!
Theories and Half-Truths
Stoners have been using the number 420 as a code for cannabis for decades, but the reason has always been nebulously explained with some strange connections.
One popular theory was that 420 was the designated number of the California penal code for being arrested while possessing cannabis. This theory fizzles pretty quickly under inspection since there’s no record of that ever having been the case.
Another popular theory is that the number is used in memoriam of the great Reggae musician and famous pot-lover Bob Marley, who died on April 20. The only problem with this theory is that Bob Marley died May 11, 1981. A connected theory is that it’s based on his birthday. Unfortunately, this is just as wrong since Marley was born Feb. 6, 1945.
A song by Bob Dylan has also spurred on 420 rumors. In the 1966 song “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35,” Dylan repeatedly sings the famous line “Everybody must get stoned.” Dylan fans and cannabis conspiracy theorists point out that 12 multiplied by 35 equals 420. This isn’t really that bad of a theory, all things considered, but Dylan never confirmed it in any way.
The first intentionally administered dose of LSD is a strange case in this mystery. Many stoners will tell you that the Swiss inventor of the popular psychedelic drug dosed himself on purpose with LSD for the first time at 4:20 pm on April 19, 1943—celebrated by LSD enthusiasts as “Bicycle Day,” named after the scientist’s fateful bicycle ride home in which the effects of the drug began to take hold. The strange thing about this story is that it’s completely true. Albert Hoffman did in fact take the historic dose at 4:20 pm, according to his notes. But as will become clear further in our investigation, this is probably not the origin of the cannabis holiday.
Perhaps the strangest theory of all has to do with celebrated horror author H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft went mostly unnoticed in his day but his “cosmic horror” stories have gone on to influence horror literature and films ever since. His work has been referenced in innumerable modern pop culture works including the recent film The Color Out of Space and the well-known Batman superhero franchise.
From Lovecraft’s “In the Walls of Eryx”:
“I had encountered at last one of those curious mirage-plants about which so many of our men told stories. Anderson had warned me of them, and described their appearance very closely—the shaggy stalk, the spiky leaves, and the mottled blossoms whose gaseous, dream-breeding exhalations penetrate every existing make of mask. … Gradually the dancing lights began to disappear, and the shimmering spectral scenery began to assume the aspect of solidity. When I did get wholly clear I looked at my watch and was astonished to find that the time was only 4:20. Though eternities had seemed to pass, the whole experience could have consumed little more than a half-hour.”
Many Lovecraft critics have suggested that the “curious mirage-plants” are none other than cannabis, and that the story—originally published in 1939—is the first recorded use of 4:20. It’s another curious connection that could be true, but seems unlikely in light of the following story.
Tea Time for The Waldos
The most convincing story about the origin of 420 comes from a group of California teenagers who used to get together in the ’70s at a specific time to smoke up.
According to the group, known around their high school as “the Waldos”—a name referencing the wall that they congregated at—the number originally had a practical use. The group would meet every day after school at 4:20 pm to smoke reefer and look for a reportedly abandoned pot plant that was rumored to be growing in the area. The time was decided upon because that’s when all the group’s members were finished with extracurricular activities.
While this origin story sounds just plain mundane compared to the others, the Waldos have proof. The group has published documents on 420waldos.com that include numerous letters that were post-marked from the time mentioning the term in relation to smoking cannabis as well as a poster the group made in the ’70s that prominently displays the number. A school newsletter is also included in which a student answers a question by simply saying, “420.”
But these claims by the Waldos have never been tested by experts and the whole thing could be staged. The clout gained from being recognized as the creators of 420 would certainly be enough of a motive to fake the story.
But let us not worry over the details. Instead, as we draw near this most satisfying of made-up modern holidays, let us rejoice in the knowledge that we will never know everything there is to know about this plant. Here’s to mystery!