4/20: The hazy story of how it became marijuana's high holiday

Jerry Garcia, Louis Pasteur and 5 high school kids

For decades, April 20 has been the high holiday for marijuana smokers. But the story of how 4/20 became forever linked with pot is hazy, at best.

No, it’s not the code used by police when someone is caught smoking marijuana. And it has nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

The real story apparently traces back to northern California. It's a tale involving dairy pioneer Louis Pasteur, the Grateful Dead and five high school athletes.

In 2002, an article by Steven Hager, editor of High Times magazine, claimed he had been contacted by a group of people calling themselves the “Waldos,” who claimed they were responsible for the origins of 4/20. The anonymous members of the group told Hager that in 1971, they were students at San Rafael High School and would meet every day at 4:20 p.m. to smoke marijuana.

The High Times article was mostly vague but it was used as a starting point by Huffington Post writers Ryan Grim and Carly Schwartz, who investigated the legend further, leading to an extensive origin story published in 2009.

The Huffington Post identified the so-called “Waldos” and corroborated their story. The writers found that five friends who were athletes at San Rafael did indeed coin the term. The first 4:20 p.m. meeting was held at a statue of French scientist Louis Pasteur on the school’s campus in Marin County, California — where the group set off on a search for a crop of marijuana that was said to be untended.

After a few of these meetings, “420” became shorthand for anything related to weed among the Waldos gang. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about,” 57-year-old Steve Capper, a member of the Waldos group, told Huffington Post. “Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

But how did the term go from being a secret code used by a group of California teenagers to the nation’s most identifiable symbol of marijuana use? That’s where the Grateful Dead came in.

According to Huffington Post, an older brother of one of the Waldos worked in the music business and was friends with Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh. It’s assumed the brother used the term “420” to refer to pot while in Lesh’s company and it grew like California Kush as the Dead toured — and smoked — around the country.

When the internet took off in the 1990s, High Times bought the domain name 420.com, which it still maintains.

The notoriety of April 20 as a day of weed-related activity has become so mainstream that businesses including McDonald’s have taken advantage of the date. In recent years, it’s been used as a day for the pro-marijuana lobby to gather in hopes to spread the legalization of the substance across the country.

In 2015, HBO political commentator and comedian Bill Maher launched an online petition at Change.org to drum up support for the day to be marked an official holiday. Maher's initiative fell about 2,000 signatures shy of its 35,000-vote goal but regardless, 4/20 is likely here to stay as the nation's day of toking.

Clint Davis covers entertainment and trending news topics for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.

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