The true source of the term “420” has been shrouded in myths spread around the internet like wildfire. Some of the myths used to explain the use of this particular number include people claiming it was part of the code used by police officers to signify that there was “marijuana smoking in progress.” Others attribute its origin to the claim that marijuana contains 420 active ingredients. The truth is that there are over 500 active ingredients in marijuana, although this number can fluctuate due to differences in marijuana composition.
Other more farfetched theories attribute the name to April 20th being Hitler’s birth date or the Columbine school shootings date. Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” has also been mistakenly declared the term’s origin since 12 multiplied by 35 equals 420.
Although the myths above seem unbelievable, many are widely believed as no claim to being the source of the term has any concrete evidence. The most plausible and widely believed theory stems from five high school students living in California during the ’70s. These students used the term “4:20” to refer to an abandoned cannabis crop they planned to search for. They would typically meet at 4:20 p.m., and the term eventually became their code word for cannabis consumption. The teenage group’s connections to a counter-culture rock band, The Grateful Dead, led to the term spreading among the band’s fans around the United States. Fans were so passionate about the term that they began to run events and meetups on April 20th and even circulated flyers to get people to attend.
This story was popularized by Steven Hager, who came across one of these flyers in December of 1990. At the time, Hager was a reporter for High Times magazine. In 1991 the magazine printed the flyer, and from that point, the number was commonly referenced in its pages. This led to the concept spreading internationally, and eventually, it became known worldwide that 420 was a code for marijuana.
420 has entered internet and meme culture and spread around the world. Signposts featuring the number are frequently stolen, and some areas have resorted to changing their signs to 419.99. What was once used as a secret term among stoners used to identify each other has entered mainstream culture.
April 20th is right around the corner, so whatever the true source of 420 is, we wish you a happy 4/20 this year.