Cannabis, Contradictions, and The History of 420

Story by: Amanda Siebert, author of The Little Book of Cannabis

This article originally appeared in The Her(B) Life Vol 02, order your physical or digital copy here.


Whether we’re using it to let friends know that we’re headed out back for another sesh, or writing it in kijiji ads to let potential housemates know that we’re cannabis-friendly, ‘420’ is a versatile ideogram with a nuanced history—one that, in the face of legalization and it’s “protect the children” rhetoric, deserves a closer look.  

Some have hotly debated the origins of the secret stoner code, and while many myths about the number’s history have been debunked, certain aspects of the real story beg to be highlighted, especially amid campaigns that aren’t always consistent with the experiences of, you know, actual cannabis consumers.

Police Codes, Strains or tea time, How did 420 become a code word?

Take, for example, the demographic thought to use the term most often. While it might still be thrown about in some more mature circles, my fondest memories of using ‘420’ are in high school (something I’m hesitant to admit, but we’ll unpack that shortly), where the roots of its origins were often discussed with friends in hazy circles at the dugout behind the gym. Some of the myths were attractive.

High Times and others would soon reveal that 420 had nothing to do with the number of strains in California. It, like so many of my friends believed, was not a police code for smoking-in-progress, or any other cannabis-related crime. It wasn’t teatime in Amsterdam, nor was it in any way related to Hitler’s birthday. As much as politicians wouldn’t have us believe, 420 became a colloquial way of referring to weed in the presence of authority among its first users at about the same time I—and probably you—began using it: in high school.

The real 420 story

As the story goes, a group of friends who attended San Rafael High School in San Marin County, California, coined the term in 1971: they set out on a hunt for a patch of weed that had reportedly been abandoned by a Coast Guard who was too afraid to keep tending to his plot, which, in the fall, was just about ready to be harvested. They used the numbers 420 to remind each other of the time they’d meet after school to smoke up, before piling into a ’66 Impala and hitting the road to Punto Reyes in search of the outdoor garden, smoking doobies the entire way. The group was known at San Rafael as the Waldos—not, like I had imagined, because of their search for cannabis (Where’s Waldo, anyone?), but because their choice spot for after-school sessions was atop a wall on campus next to a statue of chemist Louis Pasteur. (Technically, they began using the code by saying “420 Louis,” but eventually opted to drop the name.)

They never did find the mystery patch, but 420 remained part of their dialogue, and was subsequently adopted by other students at San Rafael before gaining popularity in San Marin County’s underground scene. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, San Marin County was also the birthplace of the Grateful Dead, a band with a close connection to the Waldos that would go on to use the term in flyers promoting one of their shows. (A High Times editor found the flyer in the winter of 1990 and the rest was history.)

Unpacking the stigmas associated with 420

Knowing the true story behind the term is one thing—but analysing it reveals some inconsistencies between what we have been told to believe about how and when people should consume cannabis, what happens to them if they consume before a certain age, and well, our own stories. Frankly, what I find far more compelling than the origins of 420 are the conflicting ideas that we as consumers sometimes grapple with—using cannabis as a young person, driving while consuming—and the details of the story that, while not ignored, have certainly not been highlighted.

In an interview with CBC recorded on April 20, 2012, Waldo Dave and Waldo Steve (Dave Reddix and Steve Capper) are asked by host Brent Bambury to describe the group’s demeanour in ‘71. As you might expect, he quickly points to the stoner trope and assumes that the Waldos were just lazy pot smokers.

“I’m picturing you like Jeff Spicoli from fast times at Ridgemont High,” Bambury quips.

“Exactly not,” retorts Waldo Dave. He goes on to describe them as “football players, respectable cross country mountain runners; one of us a double honours student in accounting.” And more details, from their website: “The Waldos were motivated, creative, active, driven, involved, aware, intelligent, fit, and educated. They were athletes… Others were award-winning animation film makers and painters.” Kind of kills the image of the lazy stoner, am I right? Beyond that, it shatters the idea that using cannabis in your youth can only lead to negative repercussions. (Nevermind the fact that they consumed cannabis, while driving, on the regular.) Today, the Waldos are functioning adults with careers and families, and some of them still use cannabis.

Prioritizing Public Health & safety in a responsible and authentic way

In learning the truth behind the term and also looking back at my own history of cannabis use in high school, I find myself asking questions: Are we being too hard on young people who consume cannabis? Are we making them feel guilty or ashamed for enjoying something that we definitely explored before the age of 19? And are they believing us when we say that consuming cannabis will turn them into unproductive members of society? 420 is already about keeping that behaviour hidden, but what if our harsh penalties and “just say no” narratives drive young people who use cannabis further into the darkness?

As Canada ushers in a new approach to cannabis, one that rightfully prioritizes public health and safety, I’m sure the government would love to leave all our cultural language in the past, and to sterilize the history that has ultimately led to legalization. Proponents of Health Canada’s air-tight, adult-only approach to cannabis use might look down on 420 as something to be avoided; an artifact of a time gone by that ought to be buried along with novelty rasta hats and the term ‘marijuana’—and I wouldn’t blame them. We use 420 to indicate an important annual holiday, to point out what might just be the best time of the day to smoke a joint, and perhaps as youth, to hide our intention of getting high from our parents and teachers—but it also highlights something that flies directly in the face of social responsibility campaigns being paraded by the federal and provincial governments: You can smoke weed in high school, and it, probably, most likely, won’t end up ruining your life.