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This is the real story behind 420

April 20 is Marijuana Appreciation Day around the world, but where did 420 came from and what does it mean?
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Scaachi Koul, April 16, 2014 11:09:33 AM

Surely we’ve all heard of the yearly festivities that fall on April 20, also known as 420: Marijuana Appreciation Day.

I mean, not that I know anything about it. Of course not. Please don’t tell my parents.

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Every year, pot smokers around the world memorialize the day by watching Half Baked and they laugh and laugh and laugh. If you have, then you probably own Half Baked. (An incredibly underrated movie if you ask me, but that’s a story for another You Ask.)

But not many people know exactly where 420 started, what it means, and how it’s lasted this long. For one little number, it has a complicated history.

There are so many versions of the story, but luckily Dave Brian, editor of The 420 Times, has heard nearly all of them.

No, 420 is not a police code

There’s the theory it’s called 420 because that’s how many chemicals go into weed. (Not true, and if there are 420 chemicals in your pot, you are buying weird pot. Again, not that I know.) There’s another that says that 420 is the street number for the address of The Grateful Dead’s offices in San Francisco. (Not true, though I’m sure they appreciated being a part of such a glorious day.) Then there’s another story that just won’t die; the one that says that 420 is California police code for a pot bust. (No, but Brian says that while searching for a 420 in California police scanner records, he did find a lot of 5150. Those are for involuntary psychiatric holds.)

Related: Marijuana candies come to Canada

“That’s the [myth] that people were always emphatic about,” Brian says. “I’ve heard from people who have claimed they were monitoring police codes in the 70s when the lines were unencrypted.”

420 also isn’t the date Bob Marley died. It’s not the number of a bill in the U.S. congress to legalize pot. It is, indeed, Hitler’s birthday, but we can assume he has nothing to do with weed appreciation. Hitler was not a laid-back dude.

Alright, alright. So where did 420 actually come from?

4201The “Weed Fairy” lights a massive marijuana joint in Toronto on April 20, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The real story—or at least the one that has stood both the tests of time and fact-checking—is that 420 all started in a high school in San Rafael, California during the early 70s by some stoner students.

A group of teens who referred to themselves as Waldos, were known for smoking up near a wall on campus at 4:20 every day. “It got to the point where they could say ’420′ and it meant marijuana,” Brian says. It became a kind of code for the Waldos to use in front of parents or teachers.

420 became instantly recognizable, and became slang in their neighbourhood. But unlike most of the dumb things 17-year-old boys think up while high, this one stuck.

It was just a time for a group of guys to meet up, smoke up, and take off. For all its international celebrations, 420 was never intended to be a day either. It was just a code word.

Since then, some people associate the day with personal freedom

Now, 420 as both a day and a term is being used more for activism than high times. “People are now saying that 420 is a states rights issue, a personal freedom issue…it’s about finding alternative medicines instead of corporate pharmaceuticals,” Brian says. “420, for some people means standing up for your rights.”

Those teenage hippies 40-some years ago actually created a term that eventually galvanized medical marijuana activists.

There are other codes that might soon become part of common drug-vernacular. Brian says that amongst California’s young adults, he’s been hearing a lot about 710. “If you turn that upside down, it spells oil,” he says. “They’re talking about hash oil concentrates.”

This seems prohibitively complicated.

“Everyone has slang for stuff,” Brian says. “Instead of calling it cannabis, they call it Mary Jane or weed or chronic or even 420. It’s just the way people are programmed.”

So if you’re just coming around to learning about 420′s meaning, you can probably bet your worth that the youths have thought of a new, equally evasive way to describe their casual drug use.

At least it keeps their remaining brain cells busy.

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Scaachi Koul

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