What is 420? The Untold Story Behind the Meaning of 420

What is 420?

We have all heard a reference to 420, and if you are reading this, you probably know what it means. But have you wondered about the real story behind 420? From whose mouth was 420 first uttered? And what was the meaning of 420 originally?

Some say 420 has to do with Bob Marley's death. Other's say it's linked to Adolf Hitler's birth.

Let’s debunk the most common myths about the world’s chillest holiday, and uncover the true origin of the phrase 420.

 

420 in Film

Christopher Walken holds up a timepiece set to 420 in Pulp Fiction

420 is deeply steeped in American pop culture and there are quite a few mentions in many classic movies including: Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Dazed and Confused, American Beauty, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and famously in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Yes, it’s true. All of the clocks in Tarantino’s masterpiece are set to 4:20.

So 420 is prominent in films, but can we trace the origins of 420 to the silver screen? Unlikely, since the term 420 has been used since the early 1970s, way before Tarantino even picked up his first joint.  

 

420 in Literature

Does 420 come from literature? People are actually studying this stuff! According to one guy, there are references to 420 as a plant in H.P. Lovecraft’s short horror story “The Walls of Erix”. Apparently Mr. Lovecraft is the father of American horror fiction and a devotee of 420 -- who knew? He refers to 420 in the story after the narrator experiences a mind altering event and looks back at the clock to find, to his shock, it’s STILL just 4:20.

So does “The Walls of Erix” double as a 420 origin story? Possibly, but there are more theories of the meaning of 420 out there, some even murkier than Lovecraft’s horror tale.

 

420 Conspiracy Theories

There are many alleged origins of 420. It’s kind of a cannabis Urban Legend with several “definitive” accounts of how we came to use this term. Some of the most interesting theories include:

  • 420 was a secret law enforcement code for people illegally smoking herb.

  • 420 accounts for the number of active compounds found in dry herb.

  • 420 refers to Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

  • 420 refers to the date of Bob Marley’s death.

  • 420 is the number reached after adding up all the numbers found in Bob Dylan songs.

  • Albert Hofmann took the first deliberate LSD trip at 4:20 on 19 April 1943.

There is even an alleged spiritual meaning in the Jewish faith. According to ancient Hebrew numerological science the Hebrew word for “smoke” equals 420 in the Gematria system.

Ok, so most of these were probably dreamed up by someone on 420. But some more legitimate explanations about the meaning of 420 exist out there.  

 

The Real Origin of 420

A sketch drawing of the founding members of 420

The most popular explanation of how the term 420 came about comes from California. According to legend and Snopes, the term 420 was actually coined by a group of high school kids known as the Waldos way back in the 1970s. The name came from their hangout spot, a wall near their high school.

The most legitimate 420 urban legend we’ve heard goes like this…

Somehow the Waldos heard of a hidden patch of, ahem, grass in the nearby San Reyes peninsula and they agreed to meet at a statue of Louis Pasteur near the school to seek out the buds. The group would meet week after week in the same spot at the same time, piling into their car to smoke joint after joint on their way to search for the mystical marijuana crop that allegedly waited for them in the hills of San Reyes.

Originally, the group would say “420-Louis” as their code for scheduling a meeting. Eventually, they dropped the “Louis” because they found themselves using the term “420” to describe anything marijuana-related.

“I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, ‘420,’ and it was telepathic.” Said Steve Capper, one of the original Waldos. “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.”

 

420 and the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead probably picked up the Waldos slang in Marin County and later popularized the term 420, forever immortalizing it in the American vernacular. Many people give Grateful Dead bassist and founding member Phil Lesh the credit for making the term fashionable, but the truth is 420 became synonymous with and spread from the Dead subculture. Needless to say The Dead talk and sing about 420 in several songs - and it was rumored (and later debunked) that they always stayed in room 420.

The term 420 reached an even higher level of usage in 1990, after Steve Bloom, an editor at High Times, saw the concept of 420 used on a Grateful Dead concert flyer. Staff on the magazine, long the leading publication on marijuana, adopted the phrase and 420 became a widespread counterculture holiday and concept.

So what are you doing to celebrate 420? Tag us #420vapornation and let us know!

You can also check out our list of 20 essential 420 party ideas you never thought of.

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