The Story Behind 420
You don’t have to be a smoker to know that April 20 is considered by many to be a sort of national holiday for cannabis culture. Some have suggested that the date comes from “420” being a code among police officers for “marijuana-smoking in progress,” while others say that there’s a connection to 4/20 being Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
But the most credible story about why 4/20 is a thing involves neither of those ideas.
Instead, it involves five high school students who, back in 1971, would get together at 4:20 p.m. to smoke marijuana by a statue of chemist Louis Pasteur at San Rafael High School in Marin County, Calif. Known as the “Waldos” — Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich — they would say “420” to each other at some point during the school day as code to meet for a smoke.
Reddix’s brother helped him get a job as a roadie for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and the term “420” caught on in that Deadhead circle. The legend goes that on Dec. 28, 1990, Deadheads in Oakland handed out flyers inviting people to smoke “420” on April 20 at 4:20 p.m — and one got in the hands of Steve Bloom, a former reporter for High Times magazine. The publication published the flyer in 1991 and continued to reference the number, and before long those digits became known globally for their association with marijuana. In 1998, the outlet recognized the “Waldos” as the “inventors” of 420.
The Waldos still live in northern California, in Marin County and Sonoma County, and are still good friends. TIME caught up with Reddix, now a documentary filmmaker and former CNN cameraman, and Capper, who runs a business that works with staffing agencies, to learn more about 4/20 history.
The reasons for their meeting time, it turns out, aren’t very complicated: school ended around 3:00 p.m., and then came sports practice, and then it would be about 4:20. And the social circumstances that led to the ritual might be familiar to any number of high-schoolers.
“We got tired of the Friday-night football scene with all of the jocks,” says Reddix. “We were the guys sitting under the stands smoking a doobie, wondering what we were doing there.”
What happened after 4:20, however, could be a little more unusual. The group challenged each other to find new and interesting things to do while they were high — Reddix says he kept a log of their “safaris” — and tried, at least in some cases, to stay away from their homes as much as possible. (Reddix says he didn’t get along with his stepfather, and that Jeff Noel’s father “happened to be a high-level state narcotics officer,” which the boys sometimes took advantage of by trying to make off with contraband that might be locked in his car, but which also posed its own obvious risks.)
In one stand-out example of such a safari, Capper says, the group drove out to a rural area and saw something “magical.”
“The car’s filled with pot smoke, and when we roll down the window, we see two single lines of cows following our car,” he recalls.
“We thought they were hamburgers,” Reddix jokes, but it turned out that they had been trained to follow the farmer’s truck if they wanted to be fed.
Magical cows aside, a lot has changed in the marijuana world between 1971 and 2017, they say — and not just that, in their experience, the weed available today is much stronger than it once was.
Capper says that the mainstream American perception of people who smoke marijuana has evolved significantly since they started 4/20, as it’s more accepted that people who are marijuana enthusiasts can also be healthy and smart.
He says that his business partner has at times worried that the publicity around Capper’s association with 420 might be bad for business, but that in practice, the people he meets at conferences who are aware of the connection are more likely to ask for a selfie than to judge him. (As for high school, “while I was smoking all this pot, I did two years of coursework in one year and got straight As,” he says.) More accepted medical use of marijuana has also changed the conversation about the drug; Reddix’s wife has used cannabinoids for migraines, and he says it seems to help.
And, obviously, the spread of the legalization movement has brought marijuana much more into the open than it once was — “It’s cool that it’s legal, and people aren’t going to jail as much,” says Capper.
As for their own place in marijuana history, they enjoy seeing “420” come up in pop culture — as in Pulp Fiction, in which some of the clocks are set to 4:20, or hotel room 420 in Hot Tub Time Machine — and hope their coded contribution to cannabis culture provides those enthusiasts who observe the day with a little bit of the “private joke quality” and the “brotherhood of outlaws” feeling that they experienced growing up, when their habit was strictly underground.
“Now legalization is happening so fast, you’ve got to stand back and go, this is weird,” says Capper. “This is a trip.”