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Where does the code 4/20 come from?

20.April 2021 | Manuela

Chocolate cupcakes with green icing and chocolate cannabis leaves

April 20 is the international cannabis holiday and its abbreviation, the code "4/20," is a well-known slang for cannabis use. But where does the name actually come from?

How 4/20 is celebrated

The cannabis counterculture that celebrates the day annually is a mix of political activists seeking liberalization and cannabis connoisseurs who indulge in the plant's pleasures. Half party in thick clouds of smoke, half public demonstration to propagate political goals. From Australia, to Europe, to North America, thousands have been celebrating the day at the end of April since the 1990s. Its origins are shrouded in legend. What five friends in 1970s California might have to do with it and why the future of the celebration is probably at home in commerce is all in the next few paragraphs.

Hand opens the cork lid of a glass column of Grünkraft full of green cannabis

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Where does the numerical code 4/20 come from?

There are a number of theories as to where the famous numerical code came from. Cops in California are said to use it for marijuana. A legend, without any evidence. In 1939, H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling published a short story in which a drug takes effect at 4:20 pm. Bob Dylan is said to have hidden the code in a multiplication in his song "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35". Seems all a bit far-fetched, and in fact, anyone looking into the origin of the three digits will soon find a somewhat less fabled Origin Story.

On the trail of the Origin Story: The Waldos

Let's travel to Sunny California in the 1970s. We are at a high school called San Rafael near San Francisco. The sun is shining and the students are milling around the campus. The Doors, Neil Diamond and The Who are playing in their headphones. Their bell-bottoms are wide and their hair long. They chew gum and talk about movies like "Clockwork Orange" or "Dirty Harry". Their idols are Johnny Carson and John Lennon. On the wall, right next to the statue of Louis Pasteur five friends meet every school afternoon, may we introduce: Steve, Dave, Jeffrey, Larry and Mark. They are better known as "the Waldos" because of their meeting place.

The five Waldos stand as older men in front of their high school in the USA

The Waldos 2018 back at their high school

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Five friends, one call: 4/20 Louis!

When they meet in the corridors, they call out to each other "4/20 Louis" to remind each other of the daily meetings at 4:20 p.m. next to Louis Pasteur. They should drop the "Louis" and their "4/20" should gain international notoriety. After school and sports practice, they meet to smoke a "doobie" together in a 1966 Chevy Safari Mobile. The five are well-known school slysters and are known for their sarcasm and humor. They not only seek the high in their Safari Mobile, but also regular adventures. For example, they use the safety nets of the Golden Gate Bridge as trampolines, climb through hotel elevator shafts, or sneak onto Air Force bases to get an unauthorized close-up look at the rearmament for the Vietnam War. Certainly influenced by hippie culture, the five friends are anything but the stereotypes of the stoner culture of the time. Comfortable in various high school subcultures, they are successful football players and track athletes and have little interest in politics.

The treasure hunt for the fabled cannabis batch

It's a day in 1971 when Steve gets his hands on a treasure map from a friend. At the end of it is supposed to be a fabled cannabis batch. The Waldos don't need much persuasion, so from then on they meet daily to search for the treasure in the Northern California woods. The code "4/20" became more than a reminder of a time of day, rather it was now coding to be able to talk about the treasure hunt in front of classmates, teachers and parents and not blow their cover.

The card probably came from a member of the U.S. Coast Guard who planted the marijuana but then got cold feet. Harvesting it himself was too hot for him, letting it wither was probably too bad. Did the Waldos ever find the treasure? We don't know, but "4/20" should remain their synonym for all things cannabis.

The 4/20 holiday is born

A few years later, the teens are working behind the scenes of Greatful Dead performances. Grateful Dead is an American rock band from San Francisco. The band was one of the first to play psychedelic rock and made a name for themselves with their jam concerts, especially in the stoner hippie culture. Today they are best known for their devoted fans who travel after the band and skyrocket the LSD consumption in the performance venue.

Dave's brother is friends with the band's bassist and occasionally gets the guys a roadie gig. The Waldos thus brought their cannabis slang into a scene that had no limits to its distribution. That's how a flyer saying "Smoke 420 on April 20th at 4:20pm" ends up in the hands of Steven Hagar at a concert. Hagar is the editor of the magazine "High Times" and popularizes the term in the 1990s. In 1998, the accolade for the Waldos follows, with an article crediting them with the origin of the holiday.

A large crowd celebrates 4/20 with a huge joint

4/20 over time

A lot has changed since the first appearance of the holiday. In the USA in particular, the day has lost some of its militant character due to the ongoing liberalizations.

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Commercialization of the 4/20 holiday

Events are increasingly sponsored by cannabis companies and some voices already see the future of the holiday between St. Patrick's Day parades and Super Bowl commercials. With liberalization, the political component is increasingly disappearing and willy-nilly being replaced by marketing strategies. April 20 is transforming, but certainly a unique plant remains at the center.

And if the Waldos haven't died yet, they're still smoking pot today (now legally and still as five friends with a sense of adventure).

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