POV

Do we need '420' anymore? Yes! '420' means 'We Won!'

July 6, 2017
courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance
Administration of medical cannabis.
SOURCE: courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance

By now, most people know “420” evolved from a group of 1970s California high school students from San Rafael calling themselves “The Waldos.” They met after extra-curriculars to smoke pot, which put the time around 4:20pm. They used the code among themselves, but when one of them spread the concept to the Grateful Dead’s fanbase, the code began to propagate through the counterculture.

Asking whether we need 420 anymore presumes that it is something we could get rid of. The Waldos used it to secretly communicate a meeting to get high; they wouldn’t have needed that in the age of Snapchat.

As marijuana has become more mainstream, the code has become less secret. Dictionary.com recently added new words and idioms to its roster, including “hangry,” “throw shade,” and most important to our readers, “420.”

When everybody knows the secret code, what is the point of using 420 anymore? Reforms have increasingly made secrecy unnecessary in many states. Technology has improved secrecy in the rest.

But in the sense of 420 as a concept, yes, we need 420.

Back in the day, we said 420 out of necessity. How else could we find closeted tokers with whom to share a smoke session without inadvertently outing ourselves to The Man?

Now we say 420 out of pride. We say it knowing and not caring that nearly everybody understands we’re talking about gathering for marijuana consumption.

Is there any other slang term for drug use that has evolved into an unofficial holiday?

Speaking of pride, there are many parallels to the fight for marijuana legalization and the history of the LGBT rights movement. We’ve both had to come out of the closet and become politically active to overcome derogatory stereotypes and legalized discrimination. Like the gay community, we tokers have our buttoned-down members who object to the outrageous scenes of our radical members letting their freak flag fly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is often privileged white guys like me who are the ones denouncing 420 as passé or even harmful to the movement. Women, gays, and people of color, however, will recognize this as the familiar concept of “respectability politics.” It’s not up to us to behave appropriately for mainstream acceptance. It is up to the mainstream to accept our behavior appropriately.

And accept us they have. We’ve so thoroughly burrowed 420 into mainstream culture that advertisers know to market to us with it. Last year, General Mills bought billboards throughout Denver proclaiming “420 is better on Pizza Rolls” and “Stock Up B4/20.”

Is there any other slang term for drug use that has evolved into an unofficial holiday? Come every April 20th lately, we don’t even have to say 420; the local TV news will have a segment on it. With cameras rolling, tokers in both legal and illegal jurisdictions will gather to take that ceremonial puff of civil disobedience.

420 isn’t even limited to the United States anymore. Every April 20th, Canadian tokers gather to celebrate the herb, too. The spread of 420 is so vast they even celebrate it in Australia, Africa, and Europe, where April 20th isn’t even 4/20, it’s 20/4.

We couldn’t get rid of 420 now if we tried. American monthly party holidays now run New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, 4/20, Cinco de Mayo, Gay Pride, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. (Psychonauts, if you’re reading this, August is begging for a holiday. Like Burning Man, but nationwide.)

Besides, if we got rid of 420, then that day in April is just Hitler’s Birthday, and that would only make Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon happy.

['Radical' Russ Bellville is a radio and talk show host, and a leading cultural commentator on all things cannabis. His works appears in High Times, Marijuana Politics and elsewhere. He lives in Portland.]