420 Meaning, Origins, and History – Weed Day Explained

While the term ‘420’ is used interchangeably within cannabis culture and the broader industry, many users may not fully understand its unique origins.

Multiple theories circulate on why such an emphasis is placed on these numbers in particular. One idea infers that it’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana. 

Another stipulates that it’s a reference to the legendary folk music legend Bob Dylan’s famous “Everybody must get stoned” refrain from his hit “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” with 12 multiplied by 35 coming to 420. Some even associate it with Hitler’s birthday.

In actuality, the term was coined in California by a group of teens who would regularly smoke cannabis by Louis Pasteur’s statue outside San Rafael High School.

But what does the term really mean, what does it represent and what has spurred it to gain such passionate advocacy? Today, we will be addressing these questions and more.

Join us as we take a step back in time to reflect on one of the most commonly utilized phrases and celebrated occasions in cannabis culture – 420.

What Does it Mean?

420 is a number used by cannabis users to celebrate their shared affection for marijuana. It’s also an opportunity for them to come together to promote advocacy for minimizing the stigma and various legal restrictions surrounding its consumption.

The term is short-form to represent the date April 20, although the origin surrounding why this date, specifically, is so unique, remains somewhat up in the air.

Regardless, April 20 (420) has become a widely celebrated occasion for those who use and appreciate cannabis worldwide, giving them a reason to indulge in their favourite plant with like-minded individuals. 

Depending on the region, these gatherings can spur into significantly large festivals, especially in areas where marijuana is already legalized.

Still, as advocacy for widespread marijuana legalization continues to gain more and more traction, what began as small celebrations have increasingly made their way to the mainstream, prompting further commercialization and media attention surrounding 420 festivities.

Put another way, what started as a rebellious event initially created by a sub counterculture to get back at ‘the Man’ and combat corporate greed has transformed. 

Many critics have questioned the involvement of these influences instead, which is quite telling as to how attitudes and agendas have shifted since the origination of the 420 movement.

How Did it All Start?

As we outlined previously, multiple theories have emerged surrounding the origin of 420. However, the most popular and widely supported idea, by far, comes from Steven Hager, a former editor of the cannabis-oriented news publication High Times.

In a report published by the New York Times, Hager claims that 420 celebrations are inspired by a ritual once carried out by a group of students at San Rafael High School in California back in the 1970s.

The Waldos at the New York Met. Photo courtesy of The Waldos

He describes 420 as originating from a group of San Rafael, California, teenagers who called themselves the ‘Waldos’ and regularly came together at the Louis Pasteur statue outside their high school to smoke cannabis every day at 4:20 p.m. After a while, the ritual spread, and the term became code for smoking marijuana.

Eventually, to make it apply to a calendar day, 420 transformed to 4/20, or April 20.

There is some evidence to support this in the form of letters between the Waldos. Even an original flag has been found. However, it remains unclear how valid these documents truly are.

Another common theory behind the origins of the term is that 420 was the California police code for marijuana. That said, there is no evidence to support this idea.

Some also associate the number as reflecting the number of active chemicals present in cannabis. However, there are over 500 active components of marijuana, discrediting this concept. 

420 & Cannabis Culture

If the origins of 420 started with an eclectic group of pot smokers at a high school in California, how did it clammer to such a substantial global scale so many years later? For that, the world has the American rock band the Grateful Dead to thank.

One of the original members of the Waldos, Steve Capper, told the Huffington Post that another member, Mark Gravitch, had open access and connections to the band, as his father managed their real estate.

“There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re using those phrases,” Capper explained. “When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.”

Today, the April 20 holiday is unofficially celebrated across the globe. The term 420 has also seeped its way into modern media, including references in several movies and television shows.

That said, there has been a drastic shift in the perception of cannabis over the last couple of decades. While still facing opposition in many regions, legalization is more widespread than ever, particularly across regions of the United States and Canada.

Namely, governments are coming around to the potential benefits of legalizing recreational cannabis through increased regulation and a promising new revenue stream. 

Additionally, as the catalogue of research surrounding the benefits of medical marijuana continues to grow, many realize its promise as a natural, holistic form of treatment.

As such, although 420 originated as a counterculture movement and the festivities were frequented by passionate advocates vying for their joint cause of legalization, the cause itself has progressed leaps and bounds from where it once was.

These events are becoming increasingly commercialized, with many businesses leveraging the occasion as an advantageous strategy to promote the overall industry and their particular products.

Still, for the average consumers in attendance, these events are an opportunity to join together and celebrate their shared love of cannabis and how far their movement has come.

The Vancouver Festival

420 festival vancouver
A crowd of people is gathered to celebrate 420 at Sunset Beach in Vancouver.

An example of one of the largest congregations of cannabis users celebrating the April 20 holiday is the 4/20 Festival in Vancouver, BC.

Since April 20, 1995, people have gathered to partake in and celebrate marijuana at the city’s Victory Square Park. Over the years, it has evolved into a substantial cannabis protest festival with more than 150,000 attendees venturing there to purchase, share and celebrate cannabis in “an unparalleled farmer’s market, while enjoying a free concert with internationally recognized performers.”

While recreational cannabis became legal across Canada in 2018, the Vancouver 420 Festival still channels an inherent tone of defiance to eliminate the shame, stigma and criminalization existing around marijuana use. It is also an opportunity to raise funds for various local charities.

The original event was put together in 1995 by Danna Rozek and Cindy Lassu employees at Marc Emery’s Hemp BC shop. 

It then moved to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s grounds in 1997, where over 1,000 people attended. 

Year over year, the crowds began to grow and, inspired by these Vancouverites’ passion and advocacy, cities across Canada began to host their own 420 celebrations.

By 2014, the Vancouver event surpassed 30,000 attendees, occupying the entire Art Gallery and surrounding areas, forcing the shut down of multiple downtown streets, prompting another venue change to Sunset Beach in 2016 to hold the crowds.

From its humble yet passionate beginnings, the Vancouver celebration has grown to be one the biggest and most popular cannabis-related events not only for locals but attracting visitors from across the country as well as internationally.

What About 710?

Since the 420 origins of the 1970s, the cannabis industry has come a long way, with new innovative technologies prompting the creation of a wide range of new products. While 420 festivities continue to be significant events for the cannabis community, new events, such as 710, are also beginning to emerge.

Much like 420, 710 is a term deeply rooted in cannabis use and culture. 

However, instead of focusing on smoking or ingesting raw cannabis, this occasion focuses more innately on cannabis concentrates, specifically, honey oil and hash oil products.

While falling under the umbrella category of cannabis products, these items aren’t necessarily considered to be part of the ‘smoking’ family. Instead, they’re dabbed, making users feel alienated from 420 crowds, focusing primarily on combustibles.

Thus, these users coined a new term by turning the word “OIL” and flipping it upside down to create their own numerical term and holiday date, 710 or July 20th.

For more information regarding this new budding holiday, be sure to read our completely dedicated article.

From Counterculture to Cannabis Culture

From its humble beginnings, the term 420 has evolved to encapsulate much more than ever previously imagined. Little did that group of California students know that their phrase would create such a long and lasting impact on the cannabis legalization and advocacy movement’s legitimacy and legacy.

Now, users worldwide use it freely as a foundation for organizing events and festivities to increase awareness and eliminate the stigma and criminalization of cannabis and its usage.

The movement has come a long way but still has further to go. However, by extending avenues and outlets for knowledge, exchanging ideas, and increasing understanding, the future looks bright.

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