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What Does 420 Mean??

04/10/2021
illustration of 420 and a marijuana leaf

Marijuana, weed, pot, ganja, Mary Jane, MJ … there are a ton of nicknames for the cannabis plant that we all know and love.  But for new smokers, the term 420 (pronounced  ‘four twenty’) might not be that familiar.  And for more seasoned and long-term smokers, we all might know what it means – but where did it come from?  While many of the nicknames have interesting stories behind them, none of the entomologies are quite as urban-legendary as where 420 came from.

What does 420 mean?

In short, 420 means marijuana or the act of smoking marijuana.  The time of day (4:20) and the day of the year (April 20) have both become de facto times of celebratory weed smoking.  You can use 420 as a noun, like:  ‘I have to go to Buddy Boy to pick up some 420’.  Or even as a verb, like:  ‘Wanna 420?’.  And an adjective, like:  ‘I am 420-friendly’ from someone who doesn’t partake but doesn’t mind if you do.   So great!  You know what it means, but how the heck did this number or this date or this time become synonymous with marijuana?

History of 420

An urban legend isn’t an urban legend without multiple origin stories, and the legend of 420 is no different.  It’s been said that 420 was a code name for marijuana between police.  Some claim that the number refers to the number of active components in the weed.  Then there is April 20 being Hitler birthday, but really?  Hitler?  What does he have to do with weed?  We doubt that has anything to do with the origin of 420!  Unfortunate coincidence, methinks.  

Then there’s the Bob Dylan song, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’.  Wait, you’ve never heard of it?  Most people don’t know this iconic Dylan song because its name is rather odd and doesn’t appear in the song anywhere.  Most people know this song by it’s famous line:  ‘Everyone must get stoned’.  Ahhh, now you know which one we’re talking about!  Yes, it’s obviously over getting stoned but did you know 12 x 35 equals 420?!  Happy coincidence, or eternal subtext? [queue spooky background music]  It’s very doubtful that this song has anything to do with the actual origins of 420 since neither Bob himself or anyone who’s been in contact with him over the past 4-5 decades have owned up to it.  It’s definitely the stuff of urban legends!  I wonder what happens when you play the tune backwards?!

Louis Pasteur and the Waldos

The more likely story behind the legend of ‘420’ is a pretty awesome one – and rings true when you think about it.  Back in 1971 five high school students from northern California themselves had heard of an urban legend of an abandoned marijuana crop.  They would meet regularly at a statue of Louis Pasteur that was standing on the grounds of their high school – probably because the statue is pretty trippy itself! – at 4:20pm, just when the school extracurricular activities at school were over.  Code name ‘Pasteur 4:20’ eventually was shortened to simply ‘4:20’.  As the story goes, they never found the rumored abandoned marijuana crop, but the code word ‘4:20’ stuck with the group, nicknamed the ‘Waldos’, to refer to MJ or rendezvous to get stoned.  Later on, one of the Waldos became a roadie for one of the guitarists from the Grateful Dead where taking a break at 4:20pm to smoke up, thus tying the number to a time of day.  Later, High Times magazine popularized the number and even featured the original five ‘Waldos’ in their magazine in 1998 – firmly establishing 420 as the moniker-of-all-moniker for marijuana.

Trippy statue of Louis Pasteur

Not only does this backstory seem to be the most logical … 1971, northern California, five high schoolers who no doubt looked like Jeff Spicoli and company, trippy statue of Pasteur and rumored abandoned field of marijuana?  Not only is it the most plausible, it’s definitely the most charming!  And seriously, the thought of these five stoned high school students fumbling around the hills and open fields of northern California looking for a treasure trove of weed?  A movie should be made of it!

Happy 420!

Nowadays, 4/20 or April 20 is internationally known as the day for weed!  Many cities have ‘smoke outs’ and almost every state with legal weed has a 420 celebration with music, vendors and all-things 420.  One of the largest ones in the world is, of course, in Denver!  The Flyhi 420 Festival is free festival held annually at the Civic Center Park in Denver.  Years past have seen Jermaine Dupri and DJ T.I., but this year according to their website the event is in limbo due to the ongoing covid crisis.  Regardless, smokers around the world will be holding their joints, bongs and vape pens high on April 20 to celebrate the awesome and incredible plant, marijuana!


photo credit: Photograph: Sapphic, (Sculptor – Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano (1898–1970)), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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