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David Emery

What Does '420' Mean, and Why?

By April 19, 2011

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4/20 celebration
SAN FRANCISCO - APRIL 20: A marijuana user smokes marijuana during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park April 20, 2010 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


FIRST, what "420" doesn't mean:

• 4/20 isn't the date Bob Marley died, no matter what you may have heard to the contrary (he died on 5/11/81). It's not his birthday, either.

• 420 isn't the number of a bill in U.S. Congress to legalize weed, despite many people thinking it is.

• 420 isn't the police or penal code for marijuana possession in California (or any other state), though many people believe that, as well.

• Nor is 420 is the number of chemical compounds in cannabis, the pot plant, though many authors seem fond of stating so.

What 420 is, whether expressed in the form 4:20 (as a time of day), 4/20 (as a calendar date), or just the unadorned numeral (pronounced "four-twenty"), is a universal, unofficial symbol for the use and appreciation of marijuana. In fact, 4/20 (April 20) has come to be known in certain circles as "Marijuana Appreciation Day," or simply "Weed Day."

"420" origin and history

Happy 420 Weed DayNotwithstanding the many and various urban legends that have grown up around the meaning of "420" and its connection with marijuana, the true story behind that connection is surprisingly prosaic.

In the early 1970s a small group of hippie stoners at San Rafael High School in northern California used to meet at a designated location every day to smoke weed at 4:20 p.m. They did this so regularly that among members of the group (known as "the Waldos") the expression "420" became a general euphemism for "time to light up."

The catchphrase spread beyond their immediate circle, beyond the high school they attended, and ultimately beyond California, so that within a decade or two pot smokers were using it across the country and indeed the world over.

How popular is the expression today? A Google search on the paired terms "420" and "marijuana" brings up more than 6 million results, including a link to the website of 420 Magazine, a publication dedicated to what it refers to as "cannabis awareness."

(Update: We now have a new, revised version of the origin of "420" from — where else? — 420 Magazine editor Rob Griffin.)

(Update #2: The accuracy of Rob Griffin's historical revisionism is being challenged by members of the original Waldos.)

  HOAX QUIZ: Can YOU Spot the Fakes?
Real or fake?
Image #1: The "pigfish," an invasive species that tastes like bacon!
  Choose one:  Real  or  Fake?
More wacky etymology:
What Does "Dork" Really Mean?
Origin of the F-Word
Origin of the S-Word
Origin of "The Finger"

More drug urban legends:
"Burundanga" Drug Alert
"Jenkem" Drug Alert
"Strawberry Quick" Drug Alert
"Progesterex" Drug Alert

Read more about "420":
420 (Cannabis Culture)
The True Origin of 420 - Setting the Record Straight
Stoner Chic Traces Origin To San Rafael
Sparking a Tradition: The Waldos
What's The Origin of "420" Pot Code?
How Did Marijuana Holiday Get Its Name?

(Photo of cannabis leaves by Michel Porro / Getty Images)

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