We all have our favorite holidays. For most, the festive season of Winter and the gift giving of Christmas is the be-all-end-all. For others, the horrors and surprises of Halloween get their hearts racing and imaginations running wild. But for some of us, we celebrate a holiday that’s a bit less mainstream than most. April 20th has long been the main holiday for Cannabis consumers and stoners worldwide. But where did it come from? Why 4/20 and why this day?
Much like the haziness of a good indica; the origin of this hippy holiday is just as cloudy.
1970 - San Rafael, California.
Our story begins in the heydays of the 1970s, two years removed from the Summer of Love in 1969. Five hippy high-school students, nicknamed the Waldos for their meeting place which was a wall outside of their high-school; were busy on their own unique treasure hunt. The five boys had been given a ‘treasure-map’ by a Marijuana grower, who told them they could find Cannabis plants which he had planted and then abandoned by mistake.
While the fate of the boys’ treasure hunt was unsuccessful after several attempts, we do know one thing for certain. Calling their plan ‘4/20 Louis’, the boys would meet at the Louis Pasteur statue outside of their school at 4:20 P.M. on April 20th to discuss the treasure hunt itself. Going forward, the group of Waldos incorporated the slang into their daily conversation; using 4/20 as code for Cannabis.
Dave Reddix, the Grateful Dead and Mass Adoption
Of the five Waldos, the most ‘influential’ of them all would be Dave Reddix. After graduating from high-school, Reddix would go on to become a roadie for influential psychedelic rock and jam band, ‘The Grateful Dead.’
While working as a roadie for the band, Reddix struck up a conversation with Grateful Dead and later Phish bassist, Phil Lesh. A cannabis smoker himself, Lesh and Reddix began to consume Cannabis together at ‘the socially accepted hour of 4:20 P.M.’ The Dead’s ravenous fan group, The Deadheads; known for following the band across country and taping their shows on mass; adopted the 4/20 mantra. 4/20 Cannabis Consumption became a regular occurrence before Dead shows; and fans spread the slang far and wide inside their own microcosm and scene. But it would take until at least 1991 for 4/20 to finally hit the mainstream.
Steven Hager, High Times, and the Explosion of 4/20
The magazine High Times is often associated with helping change the perception of both Cannabis and Cannabis smokers. Launched in 1974 by Tom Forcade; the original goal of the magazine was to push for the full legalization of Cannabis. The magazine would go on to become a powerhouse in the publishing world. As one of the first magazines to describe the taking, effects, and overall use of illicit drugs; it was a success. The wide distribution of the magazine, as well as interviews with celebrities such as Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Truman Capote who smoked Cannabis themselves also helped the success of the magazine.
Things would change thanks to High Times in 1991, when Steven Hager popularized the story of the Waldos in a May 1991 article for the magazine. It was the first time the magazine or any major publication would mention 4:20 P.M. smoke times, as well as the April 20th holiday. The article would be further bolstered in December 1998 by a second article by Hager; where he further explained the link between Reddix, 4/20 and the Grateful Deadheads who helped spread the term around.
Hager’s articles in a mainstream publication gave Cannabis smokers a sense of identity by which they could find each other and celebrate the substance they love. From 1991 onward, more regular celebrations of April 20th began taking place; with many smoking Cannabis in public as both a celebration and a protest against the illegalization of the plant.
Part Protest, Part Party - The Modern Legacy of 4/20
Today, almost everyone knows about April 20th and its implications to Cannabis smokers.
States such as Colorado; which has fully legalized Cannabis; regularly hold public celebrations of 4/20, with Cannabis vendors, growers, and enthusiasts attending en-masse. For others, it’s become an opportunity to see old friends, sharing a joint and catching up on the ‘good times.’ But for another subsect of Cannabis smokers, 4/20 has come to represent the struggle against drug laws, incarceration for petty drug trafficking, and the illegalization of Marijuana.
Vivian McPeak, a founder of Seattle’s ‘Hempfest’ has referred to 4/20 as ‘half celebration, and half call to action.’ Paul Birch took this quote a step further, referring to 4/20 as a ‘global movement which one would be relatively powerless to stop.’
Steven DeAngelo, a Cannabis activist as well as the founder of California’s Harborside Health Center has stated, ‘even if out activists work were to complete, 4/20 has morphed from a statement of conscience to a celebration of acceptance, a celebration of victory, and a celebration of our amazing connection with this plant. It will always be something worthy of celebration.’
The celebrations and protests of 4/20 are not strictly limited to North America, either. Starting in 2017, Australian Cannabis activist began ‘Who Are We Hurting?’, an annual sit out and public consumption of Cannabis in Sydney, Australia as a commentary on the less harmful effects of Cannabis on both individuals and society at large. Much like Birch said, it seems 4/20 has evolved from a playful treasure hunt to a social movement which shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.