Forget What You Heard: Here’s the Real Story Behind 4/20

(ANTIMEDIA) — 4/20 is an international day to celebrate a little green plant that, despite its increasingly evident medicinal properties, continues to remain illegal in countless countries. But that hasn’t stopped the annual festivities from commencing around the world as an increasing number of people accept that cannabis is not the “a burning weed with its roots in hell,” as propaganda from the 20th century aggressively claimed.

Despite the recognition of 4/20 as a weed holiday, however, the meaning behind the date is often disputed. Some think it’s somehow tied to Adolf Hitler’s birthday while others mistakenly believe 420 was a police code for people smoking weed and another theory claims it’s the number of chemicals in marijuana. These theories are incorrect.

The increasingly accepted truth about 4/20 goes like this:

A group of five high school students at San Rafael High School in Point Reyes, CA, heard about an illegal cannabis grow that had belonged to a veteran of the Coast Guard, Gary Phillip Newman, who was hesitant to finish the harvest.

As the SF Chronicle summarized:

“Newman, while enlisted, had planted a cannabis patch on federal land and grown nervous. As the harvest approached, he drew a crude map of the location and gave it to his brother-in-law, who in turn gave it to Capper.”

In 1971, the Waldos, as they called themselves, agreed to meet after school at 4:20 to track down the weed. We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis,”  Steve Capper told the Huffington Post in 2010. Though they never actually found the cannabis, the term became a catch-all codeword to describe smoking weed, having weed, or being high.

“We’re the only ones in the world who have proof that no one predates our use of this term,” said Dave Reddix, another Waldo, in an interview with the SF Chronicle, which reported:

“The evidence includes a half-dozen letters written by the Waldos to one another and to friends in college. The letters bear postmarks from the 1970s and references to 420 in the text and on the envelopes.”

Other evidence demonstrates how the term made its way into popular culture. According to one letter, the Grateful Dead caught wind of the term. The Grateful Dead had moved to Marin County just blocks from San Rafael High School, and the Waldo group ended up with several ties to them.

From a 1975 letter Reddix wrote to Capper, as cited by the SF Chronicle:

“’My brother is Phil Lesh’s [Grateful Dead bassist] manager and last weekend I had a job as a doorman backstage at a concert. I smoked out with Crosby and Phil Lesh and got paid $20. I was laid off a few weeks ago and am collecting unemployment or funenjoyment. P.S. A little 420 for your weekend.’

The 420 was a reference to a joint that Reddix had enclosed inside the envelope. It arrived intact, Capper said.

The Huffington Post summarized:

The Waldos had more than just a geographic connection to the Dead. Mark Waldo’s father took care of real estate for the Dead. And Waldo Dave’s older brother, Patrick, managed a Dead sideband and was good friends with bassist Phil Lesh. Patrick tells the Huffington Post that he smoked with Lesh on numerous occasions. He couldn’t recall if he used the term 420 around him, but guessed that he must have.”

There was a place called Winterland and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community,” Capper recalled to the outlet.

Eventually, High Times magazine picked up on the reference and began incorporating it into its publication and cannabis-oriented events.

The term is now indisputably a reference to cannabis around the world. In a show of just how much public attitudes toward cannabis have changed not only since the 1970s (and earlier) but in just the last few years, in the Waldos 2010 interview with the Post, they declined to offer their full names. By 2016, they were open to publicly identifying themselves.

When we were young, I said there was no way we would ever see legalization of pot in our lifetime,” Larry Schwartz, another member of the Waldos, told the SF Chronicle. “I’m shocked that it happened, and happy it did.”

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