The 4/20 Special

What does April 20 even mean and why is it associated with cannabis at all?


Norlin Quad was hot boxxed. I sat in a circle, surrounded on all sides by thousands of people burning bowls, smoking out of watermelons and handing out edibles. Someone passed me a joint and I puffed it, making direct eye contact with an irritable looking campus police officer—a first for me. At the time, cannabis was still illegal in Colorado and that day, April 20, was the only day of the year I could have gotten away with such an act.

That was my freshman year at the University of Colorado. As it happened, that was also the last year that the university would tolerate 4/20 antics on such a scale. It wasn’t the kind of image that CU-Boulder wanted to be attached to, and besides that, the event had started to draw as many non-students as students, compromising campus safety, school officials argued. The next year, Norlin Quad was doused in rotten-smelling fish fertilizer to deter any would-be tokers. Police barricades blocked campus entry points, demanding identification from anyone attempting to enter. 

CU’s 4/20 event faded fast after that. And especially once Colorado legalized recreational cannabis, the novelty quickly evaporated. 

4/20 events still happen around the state, throughout the country and even across the globe. Even in a post-prohibition state like Colorado, the hype surrounding “marijuana day” hasn’t entirely worn off (and like any good American holiday, it’s been thoroughly commercialized by both cannabis and non-cannabis businesses.)

But what does 420 even mean? Where did this holiday start? And why is cannabis associated with it at all? Some claimed it was Bob Marley’s birthday (or death day?), or that it was the California penal code (or police code?) for marijuana, or that it came from the Bob Dylan song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (because 12 x 35 = 420, of course). But the truth remained elusive…  

Before getting to the bottom of all that, let’s dispel some rumors. While there’s no way to prove that the 420 association didn’t come from a Bob Dylan song; it’s a fact that 420 was never used by California police in association with cannabis crimes or code for them. And Bob Marley? He was born on February 6 and died on May 11.

No, the origin story of 420’s association with cannabis goes back to 1971, to San Raphael, California, to a statue of Louis Pasteur and five high school students who referred to themselves as “the Waldos.” 

According to legend, the Waldos were in possession of a hand-drawn treasure-map given to them by a sage pot-grower, illustrating exactly where they’d find an abandoned pot farm, still full of all the marijuana they could possibly smoke. Naturally, the Waldos went searching. They at least tried a number of times, meeting up at the same time and place every day: 4:20 p.m. by the Louis Pasteur statue, from whence they would smoke a joint and embark on their stoned adventure, following their map, seeking their lost treasure. 

The Waldos never found it. But the ritual of gathering at 4:20 to smoke weed stuck. And it proliferated. After High Times published a story on the Waldos, their 4:20 sacrament spread like wildfire among the cannabis community, and before anyone really knew how or even why, everyone was getting stoned at 4:20 all across America. 

From there it morphed, it evolved, it swelled in size and scope to eventually become a rallying cry for cannabis activism. April 20 became the pot holiday, and the day when American citizens would gather in public to smoke cannabis in protest of its prohibition and status as a Schedule I substance. That day came to symbolize the movement—the point—the goal of cannabis legalization: free and open consumption. Just like that scene on Norlin Quad.

So on April 20, at 4:20 p.m. people all around the world spark up together, just like the Waldos of yore. 

In light of state legalization, though, 4/20 has taken on a notably different meaning. Now, people in states like Colorado can legally smoke weed whenever and kind of wherever we want (it’s still prohibited in public spaces). Now, instead of a day to gather in protest, it’s become a celebration of victory. While the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, 18 states have fully legalized it and more are currently working on legalization policies. The cannabis people are winning. And at this point, we’re all just waiting for the game to be called by referees in Washington. 

From a stoned group of high school friends on a treasure hunt, to a form of civil disobedience and protest, to an international holiday celebrating the end of cannabis prohibition, 4/20 has come a long way from its humble origins. And while it may not have anything to do with Dylan or Marley, people have found (or created) meaning in this holiday all on their own. 

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