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What Is the Origin of 4/20?

Hint: It has something to do with the Grateful Dead...

By Wendy WeedlerPublished 7 years ago 5 min read

4/20 – The major cannabis holiday. We all know about the day, the number, and the time – but how exactly did it come to be? Today we’ll be peering back into history to discover the real origin behind 4/20.

So… why 4/20? Why is the National Weed Day on the 20th of April? How was a high school involved? What did the Grateful Dead have to do with it?

Marijuana Minute reveals the significance of the time 4:20pm. But before we go back into the past, let’s take a look at some urban legends about 4/20. Let us clear away all the confusion and get things straight...

Myths and Urban Legends

Let’s start with a story about a boy. The boy in our story was born in Braunau Am Inn in Austria. The day was the twentieth day of April. The year was 1889. This boy went on to lead a large European nation. The country he led was Germany. He became the German Chancellor after a meteoric rise to power. His career included starting the The Second World War.

It was Adolf Hitler.

We can quickly discount this as a disconnected coincidence. Many people think this is the likely origin of 4/20; but, dear reader, it is not.

Another popular myth has to do with the police. It was rumored that, in real life, police officers used the digits 4-2-0 or the phrase “four twenty” to alert other officers that “weed smoking was in progress.” It’s a little more probable than the first anecdote. But still it needs more imagination than is actually required.

Let’s turn now to the most likely story. The one which is regarded as the true origin behind 4/20. It may not seem as fantastical as our first two versions, but it’s got plenty of good scenes in it. Here’s a few details: it includes high school kids, a legendary rock band, and a call to cannabis smokers of the world to unite.

The True Origin of 4/20

The true origin behind 4/20 begins in the year 1971. That was the year of the Japanese Tsunami, The Mount Etna Volcano eruption, the Attica prison riots, and Walt Disney opening Disney world in Florida. The music that was setting the airwaves on fire was played by The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Janis Joplin. People tuned their television sets in watch show like The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple, and All My Children. Kids were playing with Etch A Sketch, Operation, Dump Trucks, and skipping ropes.

We had sent Apollo 14 to the moon, Kevlar was invented, Intel released the world’s first microprocessor, and the soft contact lenses came on the market in the US.

It was also the year that five high school kids from California decided to meet at 4:20pm. They chose to meet beside a statue of Louis Pasteur, the famed french chemist and microbiologist. He is the man who discovered pasteurization – among other things. He came up with the idea of heat processing a liquid or a food to kill pathogenic bacteria. This, he concluded, would make the food and liquids safe to consume. And it does. It’s acclaimed because it has globally reduced the transmission of diseases, such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, polio, and dysentery. Our hats are off to Monsieur Louis Pasteur.

Back to the story of the high school kids. They decided to meet each other at 4:20 to smoke weed down by the statue. The kids would say “Four Twenty” to one another to signal it was time to hang out and smoke marijuana. Now, this could have remained a fabled, local teenage custom if two very big cultural players had not stepped into the mix. It started when a certain bassist got wind of the grassy meet up...

The Grateful Dead

The bassist was Phillip Chapman Lesh. He is popularly known as Phil Lesh, the musician and founding member of the one and only Grateful Dead. He played bass guitar with the band throughout their 30-year career. Phil latched onto the story about the high school kids and had flyers printed up and distributed at their concerts.The Dead encouraged their fans (Deadheads) to smoke the 420 at 4:20 on 4/20. They went further to embolden pot smokers to gather and unite at that precise time around the world.

The idea built up a lot of social currency and was celebrated in places around the world. But 4/20 really got traction worldwide when a famous magazine jumped on board...

High Times

For those of you who don’t know, High Times is a New York-based monthly magazine that was founded by Tom Forcade in 1974 – three years after the high school 4/20 crew began their smoke ups. The publication advocates for the legalization of cannabis, among other cannabis culture related endeavors. Each edition serves articles devoted to its readers' interests. High Times has long been influential in the marijuana-using counterculture. Writers and contributors to the publication include Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Andy Warhol.

In 1991 the magazine published and referenced the date 4/20 in an article they ran. Over time, the repeated use of the date and phrase was accepted by pot smokers the world over. Everyone seemed to like the story and the sound of it. It created the opportunity for ents around the world to join hands and officially celebrate the herb for a day.

That’s our history lesson for the day folks. Now, you know the real origin behind 4/20. It’s a great story; it’s a tale full of kids, rockstars, a famous genius, weed, and hanging out getting high.

The story’s local and organic beginnings meant that alternative stories were bound to arise. People love finding out what’s behind a name and how trends get started. What kicked them off? Who was involved? How did it go viral? We’re curious and inquisitive creatures; and we just have to know.

historyhumanitypop culture

About the Creator

Wendy Weedler

Lives in Washington D.C. Has been part of the legalization movement for decades.

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