Today, 4/20, or April 20, is that day of the year when people gather across the country and around the world to celebrate cannabis. As the 50th anniversary of ‘420’ officially dawns on the land this April, gatherings are seriously limited by the global pandemic. At the same time, people are asking: how and where did 4/20 begin? The origin of magic number ‘420’ and the holiday it inspired is truly the stuff of legends written it letters etched in smoke.

The day known as 4/20 has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the early 1970s. True to stoned history, no one can say absolutely how far it goes back, but it’s been verifiably chronicled that the modern idea started as a ritual “catchphrase” by a handful of Grateful Dead-connected hippies at San Rafael High School in Northern California in 1971. They called themselves the Waldos and met every day after school at 4:20 to light up, ironically, by a statue of chemist Louis Pasteur. They picked 4:20 because that’s when extracurricular activities at school ended and they could all meet up.

According to website in 2019, “The Waldos have multiple pieces of physical evidence/proof that they were using the term ‘420’ in cannabis context dating back to the early 1970s, many decades before the rest of the world and media picked up on the slang. There is no earlier evidence of ‘420’. The items are preserved in a high-security bank safety deposit vault, they have been and will continue to be available for inspection/documentation by Official Press.”

Who were/are this group of close friends who called themselves the Waldos because they hung out by a wall? “The Waldos are unlike anything that has been presented in movies,” the website attempts to explain. “The Waldos smoked cannabis, but they were not archetypal stoners. They were not Spicoli and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They were not Cheech and Chong. They were not the commonly portrayed gangs of lame and stupid stoner goofballs or loser misfits. Most depictions are of weed tokers being stupid, lethargic, slow, unmotivated, unfit and out of shape, slow talking, confused and forgetful.

“The Waldos were motivated, creative, active, driven, involved, aware, intelligent, fit and educated. They were athletes – football, track, high diving, mountain-cross country running. One was a double-honors accounting student in high school. Others were award-winning animation filmmakers and painters. Ironically, one was the son of the head NARC (narcotics enforcement) in the San Francisco Police Department, which gave the Waldos a special knowledge of drug search and seizure laws – valuable knowledge in the ’70s era.”

Grateful Dead
Photo: Warner Bros. Records / Herb Greene

Adds the website, “‘420’ and its Waldo’s Heritage has now made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. And yet 420 still remains a private [Waldos] joke … unknown to much of the world’s population.” Indeed, many people believe 420 sprang from the California penal code or police code for marijuana (untrue), California Senate Bill 420, which regulates medical marijuana use (the 2004 bill came years later), the number of chemical compounds in marijuana (untrue), or the date Jim Morrison, Jim Hendrix or Janis Joplin died (untrue). In an odd coincidence, LSD scientist Albert Hofmann took the first “deliberate” LSD trip at 4:20 on April 19, 1943 – his lab notes confirm this. His first LSD trip, which was apparently accidental, took place three days earlier. But this wasn’t the source of the term 420.

Meanwhile, the Waldos’ ritual took root among Deadheads and spread to concert flyers. In 1990, Steve Bloom, a reporter for High Times, the grandfather of marijuana magazines, picked up a Deadhead-inspired flyer in Oakland 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.” High Times printed the flyer and started using the term, unleashing it globally and stamping it as universal code for marijuana. In 1998, the magazine acknowledged the Waldos as the “inventors” of 420. Wrote former High Times reporter Bloom about the Waldos in 2015: “They wanted people all over the world to get together on one day each year and collectively smoke pot at the same time. They birthed the idea of a stoner holiday, which April 20 has become.”

Over time, to unify and solidify what started out as a private joke and grew into a global event, 4:20 and one minute on the clock was swapped for 4/20 and a date on the calendar, giving birth to a day of celebration wherever marijuana is smoked and appreciated.

While the Waldos definitely stumbled onto something fresh back in the day, still unresolved however is their claim that “there is no earlier evidence of ‘420’” prior to their claim of origin dating back to the early 1970s. It remains an open question for future cosmic archaeologists to settle. Perhaps it will appear as a clue from the past. For instance, in 2019, writer German Lopez revealed on how a 1939 short story, In the Walls of Eryx, by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, describes “‘curious mirage-plants’ that appeared to get the narrator high at, according to his watch, around 4:20.” Could this actually be the earliest written connection between marijuana and 420, not the handwritten letters of the merry Waldos?

It’s doubtful that one of the Waldos read the prescient short story, so, pending further discoveries, let’s give the Waldos credit for 420, even if they only accidentally happened to tap into the collective unconscious. That itself would be a feat worth celebrating!

Obviously, times have changed radically since 420 was first coined by pot-smoking pals 50 years ago. The pot-and-protest era has mostly passed. The legalization of marijuana has changed ‘420’ for the better. Since the pandemic, Cannabis has become an even more essential source of relief for millions stuck, and the ready availability of quality cannabis products has made 4/20 a holiday every day. While the now-traditional annual gatherings will be smaller and fewer this year, it’s hoped that this most unique of holidays will rebound and be celebrated publicly around the world again in 2022. Until then, 4/20 continues to be more meaningful to more people around the world than the Waldos could ever have imagined.

The Waldos
The Waldos, from left, Mark Gravitch, Larry Schwartz, Dave Reddix, Steve Capper and Jeffrey Noel by the statue of
Louis Pasteur at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California in 2018. (Photo: Associated Press/Eric Risberg)