The Historical and Cultural Significance of 4/20

How 4/20 came to be and how it’s been integrated into society forever

Written by Daniel Friis. Illustrated by Abigail Raike. 420 Edition, 2023.

Something about this time of year just seems so bud-iful. 

As another 4/20 is rolling around the corner, let’s take a look at the significance behind the day and how this simple number has represented an entire culture of cannabis for decades on end. 

Let’s throw it back to 1971. A group of five teenagers known as “the Waldos” ran a secret cannabis operation out of San Rafael, CA. One day, the group discovered an abandoned cannabis crop nearby. All five members were student athletes, so 4:20 pm was the most convenient time for them to meet. The operation to infiltrate the crop became led to theeuphemism for cannabis. 

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louie, and we eventually dropped the Louie,” says Steve Capper, one of the original “Waldos,” in an interview with the Huffington Post in 2017. 

Several other creative theories regarding the origin of the number have been proposed. Some say that 420 was the police code for cannabis consumption or selling, but the theory has been debunked as its is actually the code for obstruction of entry on public land. Another theory deals with Bob Dylan’s music, more specifically in a song called “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” also known as “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” Multiplying 12 and 35 sums to 420, yet this theory hasn’t picked up much steam.

Perhaps no one state celebrates 4/20 more than Colorado, where laws and regulations surrounding its consumption have been historically light. The Colorado Department of Transportation had to replace Mile Marker 420 sign on Interstate-70 east because of thievery, replacing it with a sign that read 419.99. That sign was also stolen.

In politics, the term “420” has been tossed around as well. The bill that was passed in California to regulate medical marijuana use in 2003 was called California Senate Bill 420. In Oregon, H.R. 420 introduced in early January 2019 by the 116th Congress was introduced and passed to return to regulation laws. Even in Washington, D.C., when Initiative 71 was passed to legalize cannabis in 2014, the mayor granted license plate number 420 to the campaign leader. 

The phrase has made its way to television as well. In Family Guy, a popular adult animated series, Episode “420” deals with one of the main characters – Brian – trying to legalize the drug in Quahog. Once it’s finally legalized, he and everyone else realize that society turned into a lazy mess, so the drug was criminalized again. In Spongebob Squarepants, the popular kids’ television series, episode 20 in season four was titled “Best Day Ever.” We see what they did there. 

Even across literature, several cookbooks with a cannabis twist have been published, such as The 420 Gourmet by HarperCollins in 2016, and The 420 Cannabis Cookbook by Simon & Shuster. 

Several other references across pop culture, examples of sign stealing, and more were omitted, but there’s simply not enough time or space to discuss 420’s impact on cannabis culture. However, one thing seems certain – the phrase’s use can only grow as long as it’s associated with cannabis, and as long as April 20 is a date on the calendar.