The History of 420

Ah, April. The month of spring, promising to deep clean next week, and…weed? In the last few years, yes. The legalization of marijuana, the popularization of stoner culture, and 420 becoming a meme (or icon, depending who you ask) has cemented April in our modern consciousness as a time to smokers light up a little more. This week, we’re breaking down the history of 420 and how the day became semi-religious for stoners across the world.

What Does 420 Mean?

“420” is slang for marijuana, hashish, or cannabis consumption. It has three different uses: “4/20” for the international, unofficial cannabis holiday on April 20th; “4:20”, referring to 4:20pm or the time to smoke; and “420” which means general smoking and/or smoking culture.

Where Does the Term Come From?

To understand the origins of the holiday, we first have to travel back to the 1970s. (We’re sure none of you are surprised to find out that the origins of a holiday dedicated to weed goes back to the 70s). In 1971, 5 high school students from San Rafael, CA heard rumors of a forgotten marijuana plant hidden in a nearby forest. The group decided to meet under a statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20pm each day to light up and go off in search of the plant. They developed the codename “4:20 Louis” for their meeting, but eventually shortened it to “4:20”. They’d continue to meet under the statue at 4:20pm to dance with Mary Jane for years, even after they failed to find the hidden plant.

The spread of the codename can be linked to the Grateful Dead. One of those teenagers ended up being a roadie for Phil Lesh. The phrase caught on from there, until the Deadheads got ahold of it and began passing out flyers inviting people to “smoke 420” on 4/20. This flyer ended up in the hands of editors at High Times and was later reprinted by the Huffington Post. You can see it to the right!

High Times loved the flyer and printed it. From there, the phrase (and the association with April 20th) flourished into a movement that will never be snuffed out.

Hey, That’s Not the Right Story!

If you’ve been here before, you know that no holiday has perfectly clear origins. There’s always something a little hazy, and for 4/20 it’s the reason behind the date. There are some that believe 420 comes from the California police/penal code for smoking marijuana, but this claim doesn’t have any proof. Others claim 420 is taken from Bob Dylan song Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (when multiplied together, 12 and 35 equal 420) where he says “everybody must get stoned”. Others link the holiday to a piece of Lovecraftian literature, where intoxicating plants appear at 4:20pm everyday.

And that’s just 3 of the origin stories we came across. There are plenty of theories, but we’re sticking with the high schoolers and their statue of Louis Pasteur.

420 in 2023

The holiday has evolved overtime, but not quite like the other holiday’s we’ve discussed. The basic practice and tenants are the same (literally smoke weed) but the environment surrounding the holiday has changed.

4/20 began as a counterculture movement. It embraced smoking weed as a symbol of protest. This a small way to go against societal expectations, “stick it to the man”, and stand up to broader systemic problems. Modernly it retains a similar spirit. Many groups that organize 4/20 events use it as an opportunity to call for the nation-wide legalization of marijuana.

And, in recent years, marijuana businesses have been trying to cash in on the holiday. Some of these companies sponsor 420 events, attend as vendors to hand out merch and other goodies, and even host events of their own. While it’s not as commercialized as Christmas or Valentine’s Day yet, 4/20 is slowly getting there. Think St. Patrick’s Day, but with marijuana instead of Irish culture. They even have the same color scheme!

This recent change does make experts wonder how the holiday might change. Will it still be a counter culture movement if businesses are there? If weed is legalized, what happens to the rebellious, 420 spirit?

Cannabis in the US

Marijuana is currently legal in 21 states and the territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. In many states it is legal to purchase and use cannabis, but not to use it in public. The CDC reports that 48.2 million people – about 18% of Americans – used it at least once in 2019.

Culturally, 420 and stoner culture are steadily growing and merging with the mainstream more often. To explore a little more of stoner culture, check out Rotten Tomatoes’ 25 essential stoner movies.

420 on Clapper

If you partake or want to send a seasonally appropriate gift to your favorite Livestreamer, we do have two new gifts up for grabs in-app!

We also wanted to take a moment to remind you of our community guidelines regarding cannabis and smoking. Clapper allows video content and Livestreams containing marijuana usage so long as it’s legal in the creator’s state or country. We don’t have an extensive verification process and cannot enforce any legal measures, so it’s up to each creator to follow the rules.  We do want to mention, though, that we are not responsible for who views your content. Just keep that in mind; we might not be able to enforce anything, but the law certainly can. Clapper does not allow the sale of  marijuana, other drugs, and drug paraphernalia on the app.

Further Reading

We used several sources for this article. The Wikipedia page for 420 and cannabis culture, a Time Magazine article about the history of 420, this article from the History Channel, and this article from Vox, which covers the history of the holiday, the modern iteration, and the effects of policy/business. To learn more about the original group that used the phrase, check out their proof of 420’s origins. To read more about marijuana use in the US, visit the CDC’s website. And, in case you haven’t heard, check out Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day for Women #12 and 35 and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.