Most people now recognize “420” as the unofficial holiday to celebrate everything cannabis culture. Every year on April 20, weed enthusiasts around the world toke up with friends at 4:20 pm, attend cannabis-related events, or just spend the whole day in a happy haze. Plenty of myths about 420 circulate to this day, with ideas as far-fetched as Adolf Hitler’s birthday or codes in a Bob Dylan song. But most people don’t know how the holiday actually got started. Here’s the real 420 origin story. 

Who Started 420? 

The 420 holiday goes back to 1971 at San Rafael High School in Marin County, California. “420” was a secret code, originally used by a group of five friends called “the Waldos”. One day in the fall, they made a plan to meet up just off-campus, in front of a statue of scientist Louis Pasteur. The keen high school athletes chose precisely 4:20 pm, as recreational activities would have ended by then for the day. 

Waldo Steve had been given a treasure map with the location of a patch of weed on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The owner of the plants was a Coast Guard and brother to one of the Waldos’ friends. He had cultivated some bud but could no longer tend to it, and was worried about getting arrested. 

The Waldos smoked together and set off in the car to search the forest for the elusive patch of cannabis. They weren’t fruitful that evening, but in the days that followed, the friends reminded each other of their after-school mission by saying “420 Louie™” in the hallways. They never did find the patch of cannabis, but the Waldos continued to use the term “420” to secretly talk about cannabis. They’d set out on increasingly daring things to do while stoned, calling their adventures “Waldo Safaris™”. 

420 origin

How Did 420 Spread Across the World? 

The Grateful Dead lived in San Rafael at the same time as the Waldos, and the friends had family connections to the band. Although they were never “deadheads” themselves, they hung out in the same circles and could sometimes be found backstage after shows. The Waldos’ unique terminology spread through the Grateful Dead community, and when somebody passed a joint you might hear “hey, 420”. 

In 1990, Steve Bloom, a former reporter for High Times magazine, was handed a flyer at a Grateful Dead concert. It encouraged people to smoke on April 20 and 4:20 pm. However, it claimed 420 was police code for a “marijuana arrest in progress” – which was untrue. Either way, High Times printed the flyer in 1991, and saying “420” became more and more popular from there. 

Is the 420 Origin Story Really That Simple? 

It seems “420” really did start as a code word between five high school friends and spread over four decades to become the huge cannabis holiday it is today. Despite other origin stories that exist, with some even claiming the word “420” was used earlier than the 1970s, the Waldos are the only ones so far with solid proof they were the first. 

For more information on the 420 origin story, check out the official Waldos website