For decades, smokers have used the term 420 to reference just about anything weed-related. It serves as sort of a secret signal among cannabis enthusiasts that facilitates incognito conversation and provides a nice shorthand for texting your bud buddies.
But despite this widespread usage, very few people understand where the term comes from. Sure, every stoner has a theory, but only one tale actually stands up to scrutiny and provides evidence to support it.
Picture the scene: San Rafael Highschool, San Rafael, California. Led Zeppelin is probably playing somewhere in the background.
Four buds who refer to themselves as the Waldos hear a story about a clandestine clump of cannabis plants growing in the forest. So, they did exactly what you, me or anyone we’ve ever met would do: They set out to find the plants. Although they were never successful, the four kept trying to find the hidden stash for a long time. In fact, they did so each day at the same time: 4:20.
It became quite the ritual, and the guys would end their day at school with a twisted jay and a treasure hunt. When they’d speak about the ritual, they called it “Louie 420,” although the relevance of the word Louie is unclear. Nevertheless, they eventually shortened the phrase to “420.” The guys actually preserved notes and things to help establish the veracity of their claim.
In March of 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary made it official: 420 is a noun, and the Waldos (although the dictionary does not cite the Waldos by name) coined it in 1971.
The Grateful Dead Connection
So, how did a term coined by four high school stoners make its way all over the world? Like always, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
One of the Waldos had a brother who was tight with (wait for it) Phil Leash. As in Grateful Dead bassist Phil Leash. As you may be aware, the Dead have toured the country playing their tunes and partying since the mid ‘60s. Leash eventually heard the term and started using it himself. Within days the rest of the guys in the band were familiar with it, and, without trying to deliberately spread the term, they’d each spread it further through the people they met while on the road.
The impressive thing about this particular slang term is its staying power. Assuming the Waldo’s account is correct, the word has been used to refer to weed for over 45 years! Think about all of the other goofy slang terms that last a summer or two, and disappear forever (or, your dad starts using the term, thereby completely ruining it and stripping away all of the term’s street cred). Call anything “wicked” lately? I didn’t think so. How about “boss”? “Rad”? “Totes”?
You get the point.
But 420 continues to be used widely by young and hip college kids, as well as 50-year-old dudes working down at the factory.