Mapping the Origins of the 420 Holiday
Byline: Cody Funderburk
In today’s cannabis culture, the term 420 is synonymous with mostly anything weed related, and the phrase is frequently referenced in popular cannabis media. Many of the worlds largest cannabis festivals and events happen on April 20th, like 420 Toronto, London 420 Rally, and 420Fest in Seattle. Even the time 4:20 is celebrated as a daily stoner mini-holiday, and cannabis sales are reportedly increasing, sometimes even doubling, on that date every year. While plenty of people celebrate 420, few know the history and meaning of the phrase ‘420’ and how it came to be. One rumor suggests that “420” was a police code, and another rumor assumes that it references the 1960’s Bob Dylan song Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, because 420 is the result of 12 x 35, and there’s a line in the song saying “everybody must get stoned.” While neither rumor is true, music did play an important role in spreading the tune of “420.” In light of the upcoming holiday, I present the story of the Waldos and the origins of the 420 holiday:
As with many great stories, 420 began with a group of rambunctious teenagers who played by their own rules. This particular group of teenagers called themselves the “Waldos,” and their story begins at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, 1971.
The story begins when five teenagers, “the Waldos,” were given a treasure map by a coastguard who knew the Waldos and wanted them to find his secret cannabis garden growing near Point Reyes, close to the Nunes Ranch. “420,” originally “420 Louis” refers to the specific time and place the group of friends would meet after school to go spelunking, underneath the statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 p.m. Though nearly four months of fun adventures ensued, The Waldos were unable to find the secret garden of cannabis.
However, the term “420” spread beyond the Waldos and was adopted by other students at the high school to refer to anything cannabis related. After the term was coined, it spread through references by the Grateful Dead to become a widely known and commonly used synonym for cannabis. It’s believed that the Waldos also had a connection to the Grateful Dead and spread the use of the phrase “420” around the band, who in turn spread it to the fans, which caused the term to spread even further into mainstream culture. In the early 90’s, some Grateful Dead concertgoers were handed a yellow flyer that read “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” This was one of the first examples of the phrase being used by the mainstream, and it has since proliferated into the well-known holiday celebrated by cannabis enthusiasts worldwide. After the phrase “420” was adopted by the High Times and other prominent cannabis literature it became truly emblematic of the cannabis community. To this day, the Waldos are still a tight-knit group of friends, and nostalgically recall a plethora of other fun adventures from their teenage years.
While differing opinions about the true origins of the original use of the phrase 420 remain, the Waldos are the only group that have documented evidence of the use of “420” as a phrase within their friend group, and several of their postmarked letters from college can be found online with the subtle “420” references, often included as a “p.s.” at the foot of the letter.
The Waldos reunited in 2016 for an interview about the history of 420, and it was discovered that Gary was struggling with homelessness. It took several weeks for the friend group to locate Gary, and they actually hired a private investigator to find him. After reuniting, the group traveled to Point Reyes and the lighthouse they would visit as teenagers, and Gary is no longer homeless due to the kindness and generosity of his friends.
So, there you have it! The legendary quest of an inspired youthful group of teenagers that would influence cannabis culture for decades began with a secret code “420 Louis.” The history of the phrase highlights the significance of cannabis fostering social connection and kinship, with large events uniting crowds of cannabis enthusiasts in the same way it began by uniting the adventuresome Waldos.