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  • Writer's pictureLizy Maratea

IV XX - A History

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Communicating in code is essential to the preservation and progress of any illegal subculture and its cause, the cannabis/hemp community being no different. I could list the many, MANY negative effects prohibition has had and continues to have on our society - a post for another day, perhaps - but in light of this most favored and cheerful occasion, I'll focus on one of the abysmally few positives: the lingo.

How many names for the plant can you list in under a minute? At least a dozen? Beyond the widely known weed, pot, chronic, trees, herb, bud, etc., there are the terms and phrases used exclusively in small circles or between a pair of smoking buddies. Sometimes the word is code for the plant, sometimes the meeting place, or even the connection. How lucky for us all that a group of five California teenagers would meet up each day in the fall of 1971 to search for a supposedly abandoned weed plant in the Point Reyes Forest. They never found the plant, but they did find a way to convey whether or not they would be getting high together that afternoon without exposing their intentions. By the time they finished up with school and extra curricular activities, the gang would find one another by a statue of Louis Pasteur outside of their high school at - you guessed it - 4:20pm.

Whether it ran through your local weed-vine as a police code for possession (nope), the number of active chemicals in cannabis (inaccurate), Hitler's birthday (stop it), or even a reach in the refrain from Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35" (12 x 35 = 420...but no), the truth is traced back to something far simpler and sweeter...the bond over disobedience. Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich called themselves "the Waldos" because of the wall they'd lean on in waiting by the statue. While the term "420" moved beyond their small group and hung around many in the know of Northern California for the next twenty years, it wasn't until Reddix landed a gig as a roadie for Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and brought the term to that community that it really gained momentum in the movement. Flyers were often printed by Deadheads and passed around concerts inviting folks to join in the 420 festivities. Activist volunteers from the Cannabis Action Network, an organization for distributing pro-pot literature and hemp education from coast to coast, met and befriended Reddix and adopted the idiom for their own handouts and supported the spread. In 1990, one of the Deadheads’ flyers made it into the hands of former High Times magazine reporter Steve Bloom, and the magazine printed it the following year. The flyer itself falsely indicates "police code" for the story behind the number, and is the likely source of this familiar rumor. It is from there that the cypher was truly established nationally.

Here we are, nearly fifty years to the month since the implementation of "420" as ganja jargon, and the significance has only intensified. On any given day, at 4:20 am/pm, and most especially on April 20th, one can spark a doobie and know without a doubt that they are not alone in the indulgence or necessity. There's a sacred ceremony in the smoke of a seasoned stoner, and when the hour strikes groovy, it brings with it its own rite and ritual. This 420, while considering the histories and mysteries of this most magical of medicines, I toast my toke to those that blazed the trails behind us, those that blaze ahead, and to the five Waldos that coined a favorite phrase and thus gifted us all with this beloved holiday; an annual event for engaging in rebellion against continually unjust laws. That being said, as far as we have come, while there is still even one person serving another minute in prison for a natural right that others are profiting millions off of in the same country, there is still much work to be done. So, wake and bake and get back to work, because when 420ing at 4:20 on 4/20 is no longer considered civil disobedience, what a celebration that will be! Happy 420, everyone!

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