420: The Cannabis Code
Myths and competing claims fog the origin of the term 420, a slang code for marijuana.
by Brian Dunning
November 3, 2015
Today we're going to go a little bit counterculture and visit a small mystery from the world of marijuana. Hidden in tattoos, wrapped into T-shirt designs, displayed on the fingers and sported on stickers, the symbol 420 can be found anywhere people enjoy the occasional (or the frequent) toke. But why the number 420? Is there a dark meaning or a secret code embedded within the seemingly innocent integer? Let's have a look at the most common theories in smokelore (lingua franca for this specific variety of folklore), and a few of the oddball ones, and see which one — if any — holds up to the scrutiny of our skeptical eye.
I will state as a disclaimer that I do not now and have never smoked marijuana; so while you might consider me a terrible person to be telling this story, I argue that I provide an objective and unbiased (if desperately boring and sober) outside perspective.
Let's start with the most ubiquitous of the explanations, the one that most people are likely to have heard: that there are 420 chemical compounds in marijuana. This is probably not true, and it's certainly not the reason the cannabis community uses the term 420; the common answer given in marijuana literature is 315 chemical compounds. I say probably not true because there's no clear answer to the question of how many chemical compounds are in marijuana or any other plant or complex structure. How many are in the smoke, the dried leaves, the complete living plant? Do we count different proteins and sugars, the components of the cell walls, the precursors of photosynthesis? There are at least 80 known cannabinoids in cannabis, and occasionally new ones are discovered and so this number is likely to continue growing. And although most marijuana writers repeat the 315 number, some say there are as many as 483 different identifiable chemical constituents in the plant. So 420 can be argued to be in the ballpark, but it's not one of the numbers usually given by the marijuana authors. Thus, we can cross this off the list of candidate meanings for 420.
Virtually all the articles attempting to answer this same question tell of a group of stoners who were high school students in San Rafael, California in 1970. They met at 4:20 p.m. to smoke at the feet of Louis Pasteur, of whom San Rafael High School randomly has a statue. For disputed reasons, they may or may not have called themselves Waldos. Regardless, let's leave them be for now — they're busy — and come back to them later.
There is a perennially repeated explanation for 420 that's almost always mentioned in the context of stating that it is untrue. This is that 420 is the birth date or death date of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, or any of a great raft of personalities known for their recreational drug use. Of course it's trivial to check and see that none of these citizens were either born or died on April 20. No doubt more than one smoker has told another that 420 is because it was Bob Marley's birthday, but woe be unto the journalist who would put such a thing into print without checking. Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann (not the same person as Abbie Hoffman) did, however, take his very first experimental dose of LSD at 4:20 p.m. according to his lab notes... let's come back to that later.
But so long as we've mentioned Bob Dylan, let's talk about his 1966 song Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, which is about getting stoned. Advocates have noted that 12 × 35 = 420. Coincidence? Yes. To avoid getting the song banned by radio censors, Dylan pretended it was about getting stoned in the Biblical sense, perhaps a reference to Proverbs 27:15 in the King James version. And what do you get when you multiply 27 × 15? (Drum roll...) 405. Close, but no reefer.
So back to the Waldos, hanging out with M. Pasteur. There were in that same country other students, similarly enamored with the restorative herb and of an athletic bent, who called themselves the Bebes. Brad Bann was the initiate Bebe, and ordained the others as Wild Du, Puff, Hello Andy, Thorgy, Bone Boy, Blue, The Mead, Turkey and The Worm. One fine day in October, the Bebe, Du, and Puff were lounging in a bedroom making goofy audio recordings, when Bebe noted the time and said "It’s 4:20, time for bong loads." He then recorded his Abraham Lincoln impression saying "Four score and twenty years ago..." Since it was expeditious to have a code phrase for marijuana when parents or other meddlers were around, 420 seemed to just stick. Is it possible that the Bebes and the Waldos happened to think up the same term at the same time? Let's leave them alone for a few minutes to hash that out.
Some say that 420 is a penal code, or a police radio code, for some marijuana related crime. It's a nice idea, but so far nobody has been able to find any such match. It's certainly not a match for any codes in California, where the Bebes and the Waldos got their start. Neither does another rumor hold up to scrutiny: that it is the number of a bill going through Congress to legalize marijuana. It's true there have been a lot of such bills, but none has ever borne the number 420... at least not at the national level. There was a bill in California numbered 420 in 2003 called the Medical Marijuana Program Act. It was numbered 420 on purpose by some legislative wag, 33 years after the term first came to be associated with marijuana in 1970, and so was definitely not the source of the code.
And on the subject of things that are definitely not the source of 420, I might add that some have pointed out April 20 was Adolf Hitler's birthday. This is true. Why they suspected this might have inspired potheads to celebrate the date, by adopting it as their slogan, escapes me.
Hitler's European neighbors the Dutch have also been nominated as a possible origin for 420, with some saying it's the date pot was legalized in Amsterdam (not true) and others saying it's tea time in the Netherlands (also not true). Presumably that last one is based on the assumption that the Dutch habitually light up at tea time, which is also not true, at least not most of the time.
The Bebes knew the Waldos, of course, as they all went to the same high school. The Bebe thought they were called Waldos because they were a bunch of goofs; others seem to think that it was because they smoked behind a wall outside the school. The seminal event that brought the groups together was a rumor that a Coast Guardsman at nearby Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station was having to leave behind his plot of marijuana. The guys all took off on their own personal Stand By Me trip to go find it, sometime in the latter half of 1971. Over many trips they never found it, but the lure turned into a great excuse to light up after school at 4:20 p.m. and get into Waldo Steve's '66 Chevy Impala to drive out and smoke some more at Point Reyes.
Might that Coast Guardsman have planted his crop on April 20th, said by some to be the ideal date for planting? Or by others to be the best date for harvesting? No doubt some people might think this or even follow it as dictum but there's no horticultural basis for this. Planting and harvesting times are different all over the world, based on variations in season and climate. If the Coast Guardsman did this, he was misinformed.
Along about the same time the gang was out at Point Reyes beating the bushes, the Grateful Dead happened to relocate from Haight-Ashbury to, you guessed it, San Rafael, right next to the high school. One of the Waldo's brothers was a friend of the band's and another's father did their real estate. The Waldos began hanging out with the Dead, and a number of the Waldos followed them around on tour. Big surprise that the Grateful Dead also began using the term 420, though today band members who have been asked say they can't remember exactly where they heard it (also a big surprise).
And by the way, Grateful Dead Productions spokesman Dennis McNally confirms it's not true that the band always stayed in Room 420 when on tour. That's another rumor that was probably started by someone who was high. Seriously: probably.
Some of the stories you can read today portray the Bebes and the Waldos like the Sharks and the Jets, snapping their fingers in rhythm and about to break into song and dance in a mock turf war that's really just a bunch of stoners laying around. The Bebes say 420 was their term, the Waldos say it was theirs; but here at Skeptoid we know enough about the nuances of human memory to state for a fact that every story remembered by the Bebes and the Waldos today varies a bit from whatever actually happened. Does it matter? They all hung out together.
If we are forced to decide between the Waldos and the Bebes as the true originators, then we turn to hard evidence. One single piece of testable proof exists as the earliest dated use of the term 420. It is a tie-dyed flag bearing the motto, made in a San Rafael High School art class by a girlfriend named Patty. Her high school transcript shows that she was enrolled in the class in the 1971-1972 school year. The flag exists and is in the possession of the Waldos today, most of whom ask not to have their last names published for obvious reasons, but who have cheerfully shown the flag to reporters who have asked.
So what of Albert Hofmann and his 4:20 p.m. LSD trip in 1943? Think back at all the myths we've discussed and all the people and places we've mentioned. The law of probability makes it a virtual certainty that 420 — like just about any random number — is going to pop up here and there; in fact, it's likely going to pop up for every person if we expand our search wide enough. That we had to go all the way back to 1943 and look at notes for a different drug suggest that this particular coincidence is not a very impressive one.
So there you have it: a mystery to ponder the next time you're feeling explorative.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "420: The Cannabis Code." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Nov 2015. Web.
23 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4491>
References & Further Reading
Emery, D. "What Does 420 Mean, and Why?" Urban Legends. About.com, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://urbanlegends.about.com/b/2011/04/19/420-meaning.htm>
Goldstein, M. "Mythbusting 420: Its True Origin (and a Whole Lot of False Ones)." LA Weekly. LA Weekly, LP, 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.laweekly.com/news/mythbusting-420-its-one-true-origin-and-a-whole-lot-of-false-ones-4177495>
Griffin, R. "The True Origin of 420: Setting the Record Straight." Featured Articles. 420 Magazine, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.420magazine.com/2012/10/the-true-origin-of-420-setting-the-record-straight/>
Grim, R. "What 420 Means: The True Story Behind Stoners' Favorite Number." Politics. The Huffington Post, Inc., 20 May 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/20/what-420-means-the-true-s_n_188320.html>
Heron, L. "Happy 420? How Did Marijuana Holiday Get its Name?" ABC News. Yahoo ABC News Internet Ventures, 20 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/420-meaning-marijuana-holiday/story?id=10424976>
Mikkelson, B. "420." Urban Legends Reference Pages. Snopes.com, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.snopes.com/language/stories/420.asp>
Reddix, D., Capper, S. "420 Marijuana Term Waldo Originators Debunk New 420 Claim." The Blog. The Huffington Post, Inc., 20 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-reddix/420-marijuana-term-waldo_b_3117984.html>
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