How a group of California high schoolers coined the marijuana slang term ‘420’ 50 years ago


Contrary to popular belief, the ubiquitous stoner term ‘420’ has absolutely nothing to do with police codes — and in fact, the five Northern California high schoolers who coined the term are celebrating it’s 50th anniversary today, April 20, the now widely celebrated marijuana holiday.

Back in the fall of 1971, David Reddix, Steve Capper, Larry Schwartz, Jeff Noel, and Mark Gravich — who called themselves the Waldos — were students at San Rafael High School in suburban San Francisco who loved to kick back and smoke marijuana together.

When a fellow student offered them a treasure map to find a weed garden hidden the woods, the five friends began an adventure that would eventually lead to their secret code — 420 — becoming an internationally recognized term for marijuana.

David Reddix, Steve Capper, Larry Schwartz, Jeff Noel, and Mark Gravich were friends at San Rafael High School in suburban San Francisco in the ’70s

In the fall of 1971, another classmate gave them a map to a marijuana garden that his brother-in-law had planted and abandoned

In the fall of 1971, another classmate gave them a map to a marijuana garden that his brother-in-law had planted and abandoned

The five teens made a plan to meet at 4:20 p.m. after school to search for it, and went back several times to try to find it, but never did

The five teens made a plan to meet at 4:20 p.m. after school to search for it, and went back several times to try to find it, but never did

The Waldos insist on their website that they weren’t stereotypical stoners, and shouldn’t be confused with Spicoli from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High or comedy duo Cheech and Chong.

‘The Waldos all had long hair and fros. They wore bell bottom blue jeans with leather patches, hiking boots, bandanas, custom made leather vests, some army jackets, unique custom-made Western shirts, agate rock belt buckles and even a Safari hat,’ they said.  

They were ‘motivated, creative, active, driven, involved, aware, intelligent, fit, and educated,’ they played sports like football and track, and one was a double-honors Accounting student. 

The friends also used to hang out by a specific wall on campus during school hours, hence their nickname.

That wall is where a fellow classmate found them on a fall afternoon in 1971, handing them a hand-drawn map that he said showed the way to a marijuana garden in a forest at Point Reyes National Seashore — which his Coast Guard brother-in-law had planted but was now giving up because he was afraid he’d get caught.  

When the classmate said that it was all theirs if they wanted it, the Waldos made a plan to meet at the school’s Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 p.m. to go searching.

The teens began using '420' as a code word to indicate marijuana use

The teens began using ‘420’ as a code word to indicate marijuana use

Mementos: They still have the map, plus others items from the early '70s showing how they originated the term

Mementos: They still have the map, plus others items from the early ’70s showing how they originated the term

'I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic,' Capper said

‘I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic,’ Capper said

The group met up, lit some joints, and drove the 45 minutes to search for the garden. 

‘It was straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie,’ Schwartz told the AP.

The group didn’t find the garden — ‘We were probably too stoned,’ Schwartz joked — but decided to keep trying. 

‘This went on for weeks,’ Reddix told Forbes. ‘We would remind each other in the hallway, “420 Louis,” which became code to meet at the statue, get high, and find the patch. 

‘We never found the patch,’ he added.

But they continued to use the code to mean they wanted to meet at the statue to get high after school, and eventually shortened it to just ‘420’ as a signal that they wanted to get high, period.

‘I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, 420, and it was telepathic,’ Capper told the Huffington Post. ‘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.’

Inventors: Reddix and Capper also still have 420 flag another classmate made for them in 1972 — well before the term was well known

Inventors: Reddix and Capper also still have 420 flag another classmate made for them in 1972 — well before the term was well known

Where it started: A 1974 San Rafael High School newspaper includes a reference to 420

Where it started: A 1974 San Rafael High School newspaper includes a reference to 420

Popularized: They started hanging out at Grateful Dead rehearsals, where they spread the term among the band and crew members. After someone started printing it on flyers passed out at Grateful Dead shows, it was picked up by High Times magazine, which began publishing it

Popularized: They started hanging out at Grateful Dead rehearsals, where they spread the term among the band and crew members. After someone started printing it on flyers passed out at Grateful Dead shows, it was picked up by High Times magazine, which began publishing it

That included Noel’s father, who worked as a narcotics agent for the California Department of Justice.

‘He had an inkling we smoked,’ Noel told the AP. ‘But I don’t think he ever caught on to 420.’

But 420 was always just an inside joke, which they never imagined would grow into what it has today. 

‘We thought it was a joke then,’ Reddix said. ‘We still do.’

But thanks to a particularly influential connection, 420 soon spread well beyond their circle. 

Reddix’s older brother, Patrick, was in music management and was friends with Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead — and the Waldos began hanging out backstage at the band’s concerts and rehearsals, partying with the musicians and crew members. 

‘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 told HuffPo. 

Bonded for life: The five men (pictured at their alma mater) are still friends

Bonded for life: The five men (pictured at their alma mater) are still friends

Next generation: Gravitch's daughters attended the high school, too, and said classmates thought it was 'cool' that her dad started 420

Next generation: Gravitch’s daughters attended the high school, too, and said classmates thought it was ‘cool’ that her dad started 420

Soon other people at the shows, like crew members, were also saying 420, and it continued to spread from there.

Flyers began being circulated at Grateful Dead concerts in the ’80s that identified 420 as a marijuana password, with the flyer-makers claiming that the number was California police code for marijuana smoking in progress.

Of course, it wasn’t — though that rumor has persisted, with many people still believing it to be the origin of the term. (Another rumor is that there are 420 active chemicals in marijuana, though there are actually nearly 500.)

It wasn’t long before High Times got wind of 420 and started using it in the magazine, spreading its popularity even further.

‘I started incorporating it into everything we were doing,’ High Times editor Steve Hager told the Huffington Post. ‘I started doing all these big events — the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup — and we built everything around 420. 

‘The publicity that High Times gave it is what made it an international thing,’ he added. Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture. But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.’ 

For decades now, the term 420 has been used in festivals and events, merchandise, store names, and even roommate listings and dating profiles. And of course, April 20 — written 4/20 by Americans — became an unofficial stoner holiday.

In 2017, it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.  

Legazlizing: So far, 34 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana in some form, including recreational use and medical use

Legazlizing: So far, 34 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana in some form, including recreational use and medical use

Among the states to legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults are Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, and California

Among the states to legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults are Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, and California

Next up? Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden are drafting a new marijuana bill that would legalize its use

Next up? Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden are drafting a new marijuana bill that would legalize its use

Forbes reports that marijuana sales during the week of April 20 surpassed a record of $126 million across six states in 2020.

Up until recently, though, the Waldos didn’t make a dime off the term, though they now have a very small merchandise shop on their website. 

Sill, they’re proud to have their claim to fame, and have made an effort in recent years to set the record straight about the origins of the term.  

‘I still have a lot of friends who tell their friends that they know one of the guys that started the 420 thing. So it’s kind of like a cult celebrity thing,’ Reddix said. ‘Two years ago I went to the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. High Times magazine flew me out.’

Their kids are also impressed. The men are now middle-aged dads, and Gravich’s daughter attended the same high school that they did — where her classmates thought it was ‘cool’ that her dad was one of the 420 originators.

The term likely isn’t going away, even though there is increasingly less need for a ‘code’ or stealth way to talk about marijuana use.

In fact, Forbes calls this year’s stoner holiday ‘the Last Illegal 420,’ since so many states across the US have legalized the drug — and there’s a growing push to do so at the federal level. 

Popular cause: More than 90 per cent of Americans now think that marijuana should be legal in some form

Popular cause: More than 90 per cent of Americans now think that marijuana should be legal in some form

The latest Pew survey finds that majorities across all age groups, with the exception of those 75 and older, think that marijuana should be legal for both medicinal and recreational use

The latest Pew survey finds that majorities across all age groups, with the exception of those 75 and older, think that marijuana should be legal for both medicinal and recreational use

Generational divide: Republicans older than 65 are far less likely to support legalization for both medicinal and recreational use, according to the survey

Generational divide: Republicans older than 65 are far less likely to support legalization for both medicinal and recreational use, according to the survey

A new Pew Research survey found that just eight per cent of Americans think that marijuana shouldn’t be legal under any circumstances. Meanwhile, a 2020 Gallup poll found that 68 per cent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, and a Quinnipiac poll found the number of registered voters supporting it to be 70 per cent. 

So far, 17 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults, including Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Montana, Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, and most recently, New Mexico and Virginia.

Meanwhile, 17 states — Utah, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, West Virginia, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Hawaii, and Louisiana — have legalized it for medical use.

While the drug is still illegal at the federal level, that could change soon, too. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden are drafting a new marijuana bill that would legalize its use.



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