It’s 420 Somewhere!

Cannabis Culture: What is 420 and where did it come from? 

As of April 2023, New Mexico marks one full year of recreational cannabis alongside 16 years of medical cannabis. The acceptance of cannabis is slowly increasing with new and returning users looking at cannabis in a way they never did. In this article, the origin of the unofficial cannabis holiday that is 4/20 is discussed alongside influencers that helped make this everlasting mark on cannabis culture.  

4/20: The Unofficial Cannabis Holiday  

The origin of this “stoner holiday” traces back to the fall of 1971 where five high school classmates, known as the Waldos, would get together, get high, and go on what they called ‘safaris’. 

After school, the Waldos, Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravitch, would meet in front of their high school’s Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 pm. With several of the Waldos being involved in after-school sports, 4:20 pm was the perfect time to meet. Just enough time after practice to shower and get ready to blaze through their adventures. They would smoke in front of this statue then pile into Capper’s 1966 Chevy Impala and go anywhere the smoke trail took them. 

One afternoon the Waldos were hanging out when their friends Bill and Patrick McNulty came up to them saying they had a treasure map of a hidden crop of cannabis. The McNulty brothers were visiting their brother-in-law, Gary Philip Newman, at the Point Reyes Lighthouse when Gary told them about his secret crop of cannabis. Being newly admitted to the Coast Guard reserves, Gary knew he would have to ditch this crop sooner rather than later. 

In early spring of 1971, Newman took on a ranching job up at Nunes Ranch in Point Reyes, CA. Here he planted a secret cannabis crop adjacent to the ranch. He would tend to this crop after his daily duties, making sure that everything was growing right. One thing that Newman didn’t take into consideration was that Nunes Ranch was sitting right next to federal property. In the fall of 1971, Newman was accepted into the U.S Coast Guard service. Fearing that he would be severely disciplined by the reserves, he drew up a map of where this alleged crop was and handed it to the McNulty brothers. Being close friends of the Waldos, the McNulty brothers headed straight to them, eager to begin their newest safari.

Though they never did find this mysterious cannabis crop, they made some lasting memories along the way. The Waldos even created their very own 420 banner. 

When did 420 become bigger than just an inside joke? 

Reddix’s brother, Patrick, was good friends with Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead’s bassist). At the time, Phil was in search of a manager for a couple of his side bands and Patrick was just the man he was looking for. His brother Dave was also hired along as a roadie. The father of Mark Gravitch, one of the Waldos, handled real estate for The Grateful Dead band. Mark became quite familiar with the band mates and would watch over their houses and pets while the band was on tour.  

Becoming quite comfortable with the band, Mark and the rest of the Waldos were put on the backstage access list anytime the band was touring. Never coming empty handed, they brought all the 420 one could need. After the band’s gig, the Waldos and Reddix brothers would smoke out the fellow members and any other roadie along the way. Using the term 420, they would very generously hand out joints.  

What started out as an inside joke between friends now grew into a whole community. More and more people started using the code word 420 when referring to cannabis. Smoking it, rolling it, or packing it, cannabis users all over knew exactly what 420 was.  

In 1991, the Waldos created the very first 420 flyers and handed them out during a New Year’s Grateful Dead concert. The banner read as the following: 

“Meet us to celebrate 420 on April 20th on the top of Mount Tamalpais on Bolinas Ridge.”

Steve Hager, editor of High Times, got wind of this banner and wrote an article for High Times Magazine. Hager was the first writer to interview the Waldos and publish 420 in print, birthing the popularity of this new key phrase. 

In 1998, the Waldos contacted Hager asking him to come to California and tell their story. During this time, the term 420 was huge within the cannabis community. The origin of this code was in question, and no one knew exactly where it came from. Some thought that 420 was a local police code used to identify ‘smoking marijuana in progress’ while others believe it was the total amount of compounds within the cannabis plant. Both are incorrect. It wasn’t until the Waldos spoke up that the exact origin was known. Hager published another article shortly after visiting with the Waldos and even went on ABC News stating, “I found the guys that started it all!” 

What once started out as a secret code name had become popular enough to be considered an unofficial holiday to most cannabis connoisseurs. In a 2021 interview, Capper told the Huffington Post: 

“I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic. He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it. Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.” 

The use of this code grew exponentially. What started out as a group of five high school teenagers in California looking for a secret cannabis crop, turned into much more than anyone of the Waldos would ever expect. Their influence made an everlasting impression on the band The Grateful Dead and eventually landed across country, in the hands of the New York editor of High Times magazine. The Waldo’s made a wonderous contribution to cannabis enthusiasts worldwide. Allowing a secret code name to be used by anyone, any time any day. 

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Written by Dana Neverdousky, MT(ASCP) & Veronica Martinez: April 2023