4/20: Hazy origins of a counterculture holiday

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If you didn’t know what holiday falls on April 20th all you would have to do is walk by a college campus and inhale.  The day is commonly known as 4/20 and a “stoner holiday” celebrated by consuming cannabis (aka smoking weed).  It is a celebration of smoking in the midst of national condemnation of the act.  Considered a US counterculture phenomenon, it has grown from humble origins to include events on college campuses, in city parks, and around the world.

The exact beginning of the 420 craze is hazy (literally) and questioning 100 different people will get you 100 different answers, but some of the most popular or at least most entertaining theories are:

  • 420 is or was a police code that was used to indicate a drug bust for “marijuana smoking in progress.”
  • Some people (mistakenly) believe it was the day that Bob Marley died.
  • April 20th is the last day that one is supposed to plant cannabis seeds.
  • It was believed at one time that there were 420 chemicals used in marijuana.
  • On an analog clock the time 4:20 places the hands of the clock in a position that looks like the hands are a “doobie” and the rest of the clock is a face.

All these theories are of wavering legitimacy and some are downright obscene, but one of the more widely accepted stories of the holiday’s beginnings is from a group of teenagers from San Rafael, California.  It’s supported with some investigations by journalists and has been accepted by both Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary into their anthologies of material on the holiday.

In 1971 there was a group of high school students who called themselves the “Waldos” who would meet up to go look for a rumored abandoned crop of cannabis in the forest.  What time could they all get together to go on this treasure hunt? 4:20pm of course.  Gradually it became their slang term for smoking so that they could talk about it under the radar of parents and teachers.  In an article that Ryan Grim wrote for Huff Post Politics  the Waldos have evidence “that they used the term in the early ’70s in the form of an old 420 flag and numerous letters with 420 references and early ’70s post marks.”

The leap from a small group of friends to a mainstream term is a big jump, but that has some evidence too.  The guys were roadies for the Grateful Dead for a while and they used the term frequently in that community.  From there it gradually spread into the term it is today with a lot of help from musicians like Bob Marley and magazines like High Times.

There are some famous people throughout history who have this interesting birthday, and in some cultures 4/20 is more than just a day to smoke.  April 20th has an interesting blend of history, religion, and rebellion to its spot on the calendar.

Some interesting events include Adolf Hitler being born on April 20 (1889) Apollo 16 lands on the moon April 20(1972), and Victoria’s Secret Angel Miranda Kerr was born in 1983.  The day is also considered a Christian Feast Day for various reasons.  However many of these other celebrations are lost in the haze from people celebrating 4/20 in the “Waldos” way.



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