5 Myths about the origins of 4/20, debunked

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On April 20th, cannabis lovers across the globe will gather to celebrate their love of weed.

However, the number 420 is not just associated with April 20th — it’s well known that, all year long, at the time 4:20, many people par”toke” in cannabis products.

But where did the significance of the number come from? A quick Google search of “420 origins” will show you there are many rumors and speculations on the internet about these digits. Some say it’s a police code for people found smoking cannabis, others say it’s the number of chemicals in the cannabis plant.

In celebration of this monumental yet elusive holiday, we decided to “weed” out (pun intended) some of the most pervasive rumors about how 420 became significant. Then, we’ll tell you what, well, a lot of subject matter experts believe actually kicked off this dope trend.

Here are five common misconceptions about the origins of 4/20, debunked. 

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Myth 1: 420 is police code for people smoking weed

Many assume that 420 is the code police use for smoking weed, particularly in California. However, this is not the case.

In California, Penal Code 420 is related to obstructing entry on public land, as noted by the Law Offices of Randy Collins.

There’s no evidence to support rumors that 420 was ever police code for smoking marijuana.

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Myth 2: There are 420 active chemicals in cannabis plants

One myth about the origins of 4/20 stems from the rumor that there are 420 active chemicals or compounds in cannabis.

There are hundreds of active chemicals in cannabis — however, it’s not exactly 420.

One 2012 study in the journal “Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology” notes there are over 400 chemical entities in cannabis, 60 of which are cannabinoid compounds.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are more than 500 chemicals.

While there are hundreds of chemicals in cannabis, it doesn’t appear to be exactly 420 — and that’s not where the associated day and number originated.

Myth 3: 420 comes from Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”

Some contend that the term “420” comes from folk-rock singer Bob Dylan’s 1966 song, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”

Some argue that the song can be attributed to 420’s origins as it talks about getting “stoned,” and they note that when you multiply 12 and 35, it equals 420.

However, Bob Dylan never acknowledged this rumor, so it seems like stretch to say this is where the term — or day — got its start.

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Myth 4: 4/20 is the day Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison died

Some believe that 4/20 was associated with the deaths of rock artists Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison, as all four artists were known to use cannabis (some more than others).

However, none of the artists died on 4/20:

  • Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981
  • Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970
  • Jimi Hendrix died on September 18, 1970
  • Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1971

Myth 5: 420 gained popularity after a bill or laws with the same number was passed

Despite the belief that 4/20 became popular due to a cannabis-related bill or law with the number 420 being introduced or passed, that’s not the case.

However, cannabis-related bills have been introduced and passed with the number 420 as a nod to the number association.

In 2003, California passed Senate Bill No. 420, expanding on medical marijuana legislation passed in 1996.

In 2019, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced S. 420, the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act. The proposed bill would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances (legalizing it) and create tax and regulation requirements.

How  420 actually started (we think)

Despite many wild rumors about the origin of the term “420,” the most widely-believed reports claim it began in the 1970s in a California high school.

According to a 2017 report by The San Francisco Chronicle, a group of high schoolers who dubbed themselves the “Waldos” started the term when given a treasure map leading to a large free supply of cannabis.

In the hallways at school, the group’s members would tell each other “420 Louis” — a code meaning they’d meet at the Louis Pasteur statue in front of the school at 4:20 pm. The group would then take off in search of the cannabis stash.

The map turned out to be from a man who had planted cannabis for his friends and himself to use. He was the brother-in-law of the friends who passed the map to the Waldos, according to the Chronicle.

The Waldos never found the goldmine of free cannabis, but the term “420” stuck, and the group continued to use it to describe when they’d smoke together and joke around.

What’s the link between the Grateful Dead and 420?

While the Grateful Dead popularized 420, they weren’t the inventors of the term. However, they were connected with the Waldos, as reported by Rolling Stone.

According to Rolling Stone, one of the Waldos’ brothers was close with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. One Waldo’s father helped the band with real estate. And the entire Waldo group had open-access passes to many of the Grateful Dead’s shows, rehearsals, and afterparties.

The Waldos’ use of the term “420” and their connections with the group led to it being spread and popularized beyond their high school to the meaning it holds today.

For those who decide to partake in 4/20 festivities, just know you likely have a group of high schoolers to thank — although some of the other rumors would make a great story for the origins of 420, too.

Kassidy Vavra