How Did 4/20 Become a Thing?

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We may be observing Easter and Passover this weekend, but weed smokers around the globe are celebrating their highest of holy days, 4/20. Once used as a secret code for smoking marijuana, 420 is now a catchphrase openly embraced by millions of stoners around the globe.

There are lots of stories floating around about 420’s history. Some people think it’s police code for “marijuana smoking in progress,” while others credit Bob Dylan’s song Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 – a stretch, since 12 multiplied by 35 equals 420. But chances are the history of 420 can probably be traced back to something far less mysterious: five Marin County, California teenage boys who wound up with a special “treasure” map.


The Most Likely Story Involves a Group of High School Boys Known as “The Waldos”

“The Waldos” were just an average group of teenage kids growing up in the early 1970s. The Waldos were comprised of Steve Capper, Mark Gravitch, Dave Reddix, Larry Schwartz, and Jeffrey Noel. The teens were nicknamed after their favorite pastime of hanging out by a wall outside their San Rafael high school. Four decades later, the men still refer to themselves as Waldos, preferring to be addressed as “Waldo Steve” or “Waldo Dave” rather than by their first and last names.

Back in 1971, the Waldos was friends with Bill and Patrick McNulty, who had a brother-in-law named Gary Newman. Newman was a Coastguardsman stationed at Point Reyes Peninsula, just north of San Francisco. Gary and a few of his Coast Guard buddies had been secretly growing a crop of marijuana somewhere in the Point Reyes Forest. Worried that their commanding officer had become wise to their venture, they ditched their farming project but gave Bill, Patrick, and any of their close friends, permission to harvest the plot of pot.

To entertain themselves, The Waldos had created weekly adventures called “Waldo Safaris,” and searching the forest for Newman’s secret crop was incorporated into the game. Because some of the Waldo’s had football practice after school, they decided to meet on campus at 4:20 p.m. by the statue of scientist Louis Pasteur. In 1971, the fear of arrest or expulsion from school was very real, so the code word “420” was selected as a reminder for their clandestine outings. Whenever the boys would pass each other in the hallways between classes, they’d say “4:20 Louis,” eventually dropping the reference to Louis Pasteur altogether. Waldo Steve told the Daily Beast, “We knew that the teachers and our parents didn’t know what 420 meant, so we kept saying it. ‘420!’”


The Waldos’ Code Gained a Following With the Deadheads

During this time, The Waldos had easy access to the Northern California-based band, the Grateful Dead, and had plenty of opportunities to hang out with the band’s crew and fans. Waldo Mark’s father was a real estate broker who helped the Grateful Dead acquire rehearsal areas and storage space for the band’s equipment. As the Grateful Dead became more successful, Mark Gravitch’s dad helped several members find homes in Marin County. When the band set off on tour The Waldos were sometimes enlisted to take care of the band members’ property and pets.


But 420 started to grow in popularity among the band’s fans thanks to Waldo Dave Reddix, whose brother was friend’s with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Reddix’s brother also managed some of Lesh’s side bands. This connection gave the teens easy access to concerts, where they were hanging out with roadies and fans who started using the code 420, too. “There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community,” Waldo Steve Capper told the Huffington Post.


420 Was Discovered by a High Times Reporter


Over the years, 420 seemed to become just a fond high school memory, until 1990, when High Times reporter Steve Bloom, discovered a cryptic flyer circulating at an Oakland, California Grateful Dead show. The flyer read, “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420ing in Marin County at Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” In 1991, High Times claimed that stoners had taken the police code 420 and made it their own. The magazine debunked the story in 1998, giving full credit for 420 to The Waldos.

A few years later, the phrase 420 gained greater notoriety thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 movie Pulp Fiction in which all of the clocks in the film are set at 4:20. Sofia Coppola followed suit, doing the same In her 2003 film Lost in Translation. Since 420’s humble – and secretive – origins in 1971, there are now thousands of cultural references and events that proclaim 420 with pride. it seems as though this once obscure code among a group of California teens is flying high.


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