Celebrating 420: The origin of cannabis culture’s most famous day

Despite its hazy beginnings, 420 has become a global phenomena, with April 20th (4/20 in U.S. date notation) now celebrated as a counterculture holiday where people gather to consume cannabis and advocate for its legalization. B what is the real story behind 420?

“The Waldos”

The most widely accepted origin story of 420 dates back to the early 1970s in California, where a group of five high school students from San Rafael, known as the Waldos (due to their meeting place being a wall) would meet at 4:20 pm to search for an abandoned cannabis crop they had learned about. They chose this specific time because extracurricular activities had usually ended by then, allowing them the freedom to partake in their hunt together. The Waldos would use the code “420” with each other when referring to their searches, and this eventually evolved into a code for consuming cannabis in general.

The Grateful Dead

Years later, one of the Waldos landed a job as a roadie for the Grateful Dead, a band closely tied to the 1960s counterculture movement and known for its cannabis-friendly stance. This connection is said to have helped popularize the term, as 420 started to be used among fans of the band, also known as “Deadheads”. In December of 1990, a group of Deadheads in Oakland, California allegedly started to hand out flyers that invited people to smoke “420” on April 20 at 4:20 p.m. Among those who received the flier featuring the 420 code was Steve Bloom, a former reporter for High Times magazine, a publication that has long been an advocate for cannabis culture.

High Times

High Times was one of the first mainstream publications to openly advocate for the legalization of cannabis. Through its articles, editorials, and coverage of cannabis-related events, the magazine helped to destigmatize cannabis use and promote its medicinal and recreational benefits. Inspired by Steve’s experience with the Deadheads, High Times printed the 420 flier in 1991 and continued to reference the number in the context of cannabis use and culture. This led the term 420 to disseminate throughout the United States and beyond, solidifying its place in the lexicon of cannabis culture. As the term became more mainstream, April 20th transformed from an underground code among smokers into a full-fledged holiday, with events and rallies taking place across the globe.

420’s Legacy

The date has become a day of celebration, protest, and civil disobedience, where activists gather to push for legalization, reform of drug laws, and recognition of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. On April 20th in 2016, Canada’s own health minister Jane Philpott reiterated the government’s pledge to legalize marijuana, and offered a timeline for the plan as she addressed world delegates. Two and a half years later, in October of 2018, cannabis became legalized in Canada. Despite its legality in Canada, and resulting shift to a day of celebration, gathering, and consumption, the holiday continues to serve as a barometer of progress for the legalization movement and a reminder of the continuing struggle in places where cannabis use remains illegal. 


The evolution of 420 from an inside joke among a group of Californian teenagers to a worldwide phenomenon is a testament to the power of subculture and the enduring appeal of cannabis in various societies. While its origins may be modest, the impact of 420 on weed culture and its rise to prominence amidst the shifting sands of legal and social norms is a story that continues to unfold. As society’s attitudes toward marijuana continue to evolve, 420 will likely remain a key date in the calendar of cannabis culture, a day to celebrate the plant, the progress made, and the journey ahead.

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