What Is 420 & Where Did It Come From?

Rejoice. The year’s most anticipated holiday is here. April 20, also known as 420, is a great time to celebrate the recent victories in cannabis legalization both in the United States as well as around the world. Cannasseurs celebrate 420, a day that’s as synonymous with cannabis as the image of the iconic seven-pointed leaf. It’s a day we can appreciate in so many ways; 420 can be spent hanging out with our closest friends, medicating in pride and peace of mind with legal marijuana (in territories where its legal), or even attending an anti-prohibition Snoop Dogg concert.

But, what is 420, and how did it come to be?


Well, 420 is said to have been police code, which means those kids are up to no good behind the high school. That said, my sister’s friend, who knows a chemist, says there are 420 compounds in the cannabis plant. I can’t argue with a chemist. Yet, HelloMD’s own Chris B. says that he knows the real origin story of 420. He attended San Rafael High School, the birthplace of 420, in Marin County, CA.

The Origin of 420 at San Rafael High School

The phrase 420 came to be back in 1971, in the small town of San Rafael, across the bay from San Francisco. It was when a few high school boys needed a secret code word for cannabis. This group of friends referred to themselves as The Waldos, and they spent their afternoons hanging out by a wall outside San Rafael High. One summer, a friend told the Waldos about several coast guards who grew a cannabis field up north, at Point Reyes Station.

420 got its start in 1971
The term 420 as code for marijuana came to be in the early ’70s.

Fearing they would be discovered, the marijuana growers had abandoned the field. A map was produced, and the Waldos picked a time to start their treasure hunt. The most convenient hour of the day for everyone involved was at 4:20 pm. So, they agreed to would outside by the statue of Louis Pasteur at that time.
Thus, 420-Louie, the first evolution of the phrase, was born. The phrase was quickly streamlined to 420, and San Rafael High soon buzzed with the new secret code. The Waldos, in a simple effort to conceal a marijuana patch, set off a viral event that would soon span the entire globe.

The Grateful Dead & 420

In search of the tastiest licks and crunchiest jams, The Grateful Dead moved across the San Francisco Bay just as the Waldos’ slogan was gathering steam in the early ’70s. Soon, a father’s and brother’s business connections, real estate and band management respectively, brought the band within earshot of the buzzword 420. The term rapidly became embedded in the band’s culture.


It was then that 420 went viral as the Grateful Dead hopped from city to city, turning a high school’s secret word into a nationally recognized code for all cannabis enthusiasts. The near infinite Dead tours throughout the years (682 shows to be exact) helped ensure the term 420 would see as many new places as possible.

All over the USA, 420 took hold, as a generation identifying itself through counterculture, spirituality and love, also identified itself through a love for cannabis. This term spread globally and finally came to rest as the term modern marijuana lovers most closely identify with.

420 for cannabis took off with the Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead helped breathe life into the word 420.

420 The Movie

Last week, I was lucky enough to speak with Michel Shane, a well-known Hollywood movie producer. He’s currently producing a movie out of this fantastic story spurred on by thedesire to tell a modern legend. Considering the origin story for 420 contains treasure maps, rock bands and the fight against prohibition, I can’t find fault with his plan. The release date and name of the movie have yet to be announced, but I’m looking forward to the Waldos and 420 making it to the big screen.

Society’s growing acceptance of cannabis, both medical and recreational, has many optimistic about the future of this cherished plant. Its true beauty lies in the way that each can enjoy their cannabis on their own terms. Whether your migraines are mitigated, your pain defeated, or you just want a good giggle, cannabis assists with so many different areas of our lives. Here’s to 420—the day we get to remember the cannabis plant and all the relief and joy it brings us.

Happy 420, everybody!

If you’re new to cannabis and want to learn more, take a look at our Cannabis 101 post. HelloMD can help you get your medical marijuana recommendation; it’s easy, private and 100% online.

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