The True History Of 4/20 (And Why It Might Disappear)

The True History Of 4/20 (And Why It Might Disappear)

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Today is quite a day for marijuana advocates in the United States: it will be the first time that 4/20 will be celebrated legally anywhere in the US, wearing their weed t-shirts proudly and bringing out their beautifully crafted glass bongs– not hiding them in fear of cops but proudly brandishing them as symbols of a victory attained.

(Well, semi-legally.)

All across Colorado, at least, people will be lighting up their joints and bongs, eating their magic brownies, and enjoying their high without the fear that the police will come knocking on their door due to the wafting smell of marijuana drifting out from inside their rooms or homes.

All across Colorado, at least, people will be lighting up their joints and bongs without the fear that the police will come knocking on their door

(And as it turns out, the police are happy too: Violent crime and traffic fatalities are down one year in from the law, and $44 million has been raised in taxes from sale of the plant, with $8 million already put towards education.)

For April 20th is the unofficial counterculture holiday for marijuana smoking, and millions of pot smokers around the globe come out to celebrate what is perhaps the most devoutly observed secular global holiday, and at 4:20 PM local time the faithful all come around and light up in honor of…

in honor of… what, exactly?

For April 20th is the unofficial counterculture holiday for marijuana smoking, the day the faithful all come around and light up in honor of… what, exactly?

That it exists is obvious: most everyone has heard of the holiday in one form or another, especially if you’ve gone to college in the last 30 years. But what is less obvious are its origins. Where did it come from? Who decided that on 4/20 at 4:20 PM, everyone would come together and smoke a joint?

As it turns out, the origin of the holiday is – appropriately – cloudy and hazy, and multiple (sometimes outrageous) theories have been put forth concerning its origins, including the widely held but ultimately silly notion that 420 was the police code for “Marijuana Smoking in Progress”. Here are just some of the origin stories that have been put forth for 420:

Where did it come from? Who decided that on 4/20 at 4:20 PM, everyone would come together and smoke a joint?

  • That 420 is the number of chemical compounds in cannabis.
  • That 420 was the number of the original bill calling for the legalization of marijuana.
  • That 4/20 is the commemoration of Bob Marley’s death.
  • That 420 refers to the section of the California penal code relating to marijuana.
  • That 4/20 was the date weed was legalized in Amsterdam.
  • That 4/20 is the best day to plant marijuana.

As it turns out, none of those are the case (in fact, none of them are even close to being true). The true story is not so glamorous, but- as befits a counterculture holiday- is a little weirder and more lovable than any explanation anyone has cooked up after the fact.

The first recorded reference to 4/20 is also its birthplace as a coded stoner message- in 1971, in San Rafael, California. A group of high school students who called themselves the “Waldos”, because they liked to hang out in front of a wall (creative, we know), coined the term. It grew out of “420 Louis!” which was their coded call to others to meet them in front of the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 PM on the grounds of the San Rafael high school for an afternoon smoke.

It became an inside joke among the students, who used “420” as slang for weed smoking and weed-smoking related activities. By the late 70s, it had become a phenomenon, helped out by Deadheads who spread its usage out from San Rafael, and by the 80s it was ubiquitous. Pop culture is now rife with references to the date, appearing in TV shows, movies, films, and music, ranging from episodes of Family Guy to collaboration songs between Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson.

Now, of course, it has embedded itself in the common culture- everyone knows about 4/20, and celebrations of it on college campuses across the world are a dime a dozen. Even someone who has never before smoked weed in their lives is almost certainly familiar with the haze of smoke that appears on the brisk afternoon of April 20th, and it’s a sure bet that cloud of pot smoke will only thicken now that weed is legal in Colorado.

Now, of course, it has embedded itself in the common culture- everyone knows about 4/20, and celebrations of it on college campuses across the world are a dime a dozen.

Or will it?

4/20 is one of the strongest and most visible counterculture holidays, and many colleges and high schools have tried unsuccessfully to get their students to stop celebrating it over the years… but the legalization of weed might ironically be the thing that finally kills it.

Smoking, both marijuana and tobacco, has long been the realm of the cool kids. Smoking is associated with rebellion and edginess, two things that don’t flow with legalization. Part of the appeal of smoking is the fact that it’s taboo, and the act of smoking itself, the violation of the law (however slight) every time you light up. Legal substances simply don’t have the same cool appeal.

the legalization of weed might ironically be the thing that finally kills it.

And I can prove it to you: you probably knew about 4/20 before opening up this article. But can you tell me what day National Beer Day lands on? I bet you can’t. That’s because drinking beer is perfectly legal. There’s no mythos or ritual surrounding it, nothing that makes you feel special or unique. Beer isn’t counterculture the way marijuana is, and so no mythic holiday sprung up around it.

(National Beer Day is April 7th, by the way).

Marijuana’s impending legalization may thus also spell doom for its unique, unofficial holiday. Even now the signs are there: 4/20 is orders of magnitude more popular in the US, Canada, and England than it is in the Netherlands, even though the Netherlands is the proverbial Mecca for marijuana consumption. 4/20 has struggled to gain as much traction among the Dutch as it has among other countries, and many 4/20 celebrations in Amsterdam are tourists from other countries.

In fact, not only is 4/20 less popular, marijuana use in and of itself is less popular as well: despite marijuana being widely available in licensed coffee shops throughout the country, only 6% of Dutch have even bothered to try weed, compared to 16% of Canadians and 38% of Americans. Weed is commonplace and mostly legal, and so there is no cool factor associated with it, no boundaries to be broken.

In short, it’s not worth getting excited enough to make a holiday for.

In short, it’s not worth getting excited enough to make a holiday for.

And that’s likely to happen with marijuana in the US as well. 4/20 will probably always hold significance for the generations that came of age before marijuana was legal- much like Prohibition did with alcohol, the memory of marijuana’s taboo will fill them with a rebellious nostalgia that will always make them look back at it with a certain fondness.

But years from now, even as gray and white-haired parents and grandparents light up on 4/20 in defiance of a taboo long gone, their children probably won’t- and for the same reasons. It will be cooler not to celebrate 4/20, because smoking weed is what your parents do… and throughout history, at least, that has never been cool.