It was never California police code for marijuana, and it had nothing to do with the date of April 20th. But the origins of "420" as the codeword of stoner culture lie here in the Bay Area, with a group of five teenagers — now men in their 60s — living in Marin.
We've told the tale on this site before, but every year it comes up and a new generation may not have heard it all the way through. And, the originators of 420, the codeword, have only started talking to the press and discussing the proof they have of being the originators in the last decade.
Their names are Steve Capper, David Reddix, Larry Schwartz, Jeff Noel, and Mark Gravich. And once upon a time at San Rafael High School, in 1971, they were just some stoner teens who dubbed themselves The Waldos, in part because they hung around next to a wall outside the school, and because — as the Associated Press adds today — the term "Waldo" had been used by comedian Buddy Hackett "to describe odd people."
One day, another friend of theirs gifted them a hand-drawn map, telling them he had a brother-in-law in the Coast Guard, stationed at Point Reyes Station, who had planted a clandestine marijuana patch somewhere in the woods out there. Scared of getting caught, he was renouncing his claim to the patch, and the friend said the Waldos were welcome to have at it, if they could find it.
The five boys made a plan to meet at the school's statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 that day, after school and after two of them got out of football practice.
Capper and Reddix told the Criminal podcast a few years back that they then "fired up a doobie, got high, hopped in Steve's '66 Impala with a killer Craig 8-track stereo, and we smoked all the way out there and started our search."
"It looked like a scene from Cheech & Chong," Reddix said. "We'd get the whole car clouded up with smoke and we'd be listening to the 8-track tapes and talking and grooving and having a great time and we were excited to find this patch."
They never found it, not that day, or on subsequent adventures, which kicked off with them passing each other in the halls of their school and whispering "4:20 Louis," which was their code. Later, they say, they dropped the "Louis" part and stopped looking for the Point Reyes patch, and "4:20" was just code for "let's get high somewhere at 4:20."
The story of how their jokey code made it into popular usage is a funny and pretty plausible one, and it all has to do with Grateful Dead shows. Reddix's brother was friends with Dead guitarist Phil Lesh, and the boys were soon getting backstage passes to shows and hanging with roadies. Their private joke eventually made it onto flyers passed around at Dead shows in the 80s, proclaiming "420" to be the password for marijuana.
"There were myriad reasons for the teens to speak in code about smoking marijuana in 1971," the AP writes. "Marijuana's growing social tolerance was still decades away and people were receiving stiff prison sentences after being caught with even small amounts."
Noel's dad was also a narcotics agent for the California Department of Justice, so they had reason to be a little paranoid.
"He had an inkling we smoked," Noel tells the AP. "But I don't think he ever caught on to 420."
Also, another interesting tidbit that the AP learned this year, one of the Waldos, Mark Gravich, has had two daughters attend San Rafael High School. The youngest, Julia Gravich, is currently a sophomore, and tells the AP of her dad's, and the school's, stoner notoriety, "The kids here think it's pretty cool."
Over the decades, the hour of 4:20 was embraced in stoner culture as the time of day to toke up, but then this morphed into the date 4/20 becoming symbolic as well. The magazine High Times in 1991 declared April 20th the "grandmaster of all holidays." (High Times was also responsible for spreading the misinformation, which had made it onto one of those Dead show flyers, that 420 was California penal code for marijuana possession, which it never was.)
Stoners love to point out that both Quentin Tarantino and his onetime girlfriend and fellow director Sofia Coppola, both included clocks in shots in their films Pulp Fiction (1994) and Lost In Translation (2003) that were set to 4:20.
What we now know as the annual Golden Gate Park 4/20 fest at Hippie Hill seems to have started around the early aughts, though it may have been in the 90s — no one seems to have a definitive date. SFist’s earliest coverage of the event in 2011 called it an “annual ode of marijuana,” and picked up on a local media report that “A 47-year-old woman was bashed over the head with a portable radio" and threatened with death apparently over a picnic spot during the 4/20 fest that year. Our 2012 coverage noted the trend of enormous volumes of trash accumulating in the park, and cleaning after the free event was reportedly costing the city $15,000. Local reporter Stanley Roberts would make it one of his signatures day for catching "people behaving badly" on KRON4, and a then-District 5 supervisor named London Breed declared, “I am not comfortable with an event that encourages such rampant drug use by adults and minors alike.”
And Breed would become even less comfortable with it, as by 2016, the event was drawing around 8,000 people, and creating 17,000 pounds of litter and trash. Our own experience that year was seeing rampant unauthorized alcohol and pot sales, plus someone flashed a gun and created a crowd stampede.
By 2017, the city decided to legalize it with permits, fences, and porta-potties to rein in the chaos. It was still an open-air drug and alcohol sales free-for-all, but at least they kept the minors out. And these efforts finally started paying dividends by 2019, with the park being left in very clean condition, and most significantly, the elimination of alcohol vending. And while last year's back-to-normal-style event was peaceful, they made the unfortunate choice of Mike Tyson as the event host. We have high hopes that Erykah Badu will handle that role more capably this year.
The five Waldos, meanwhile, won't have a booth there and have never profited off their coinage of the term 420, but they may be starting to now — they're officially backing a vape pen being made in Oakland that launches this week. Reddix and the gang "came out," as it were, as the Waldos around 2013, when Reddix — a former CNN camera operator — wrote a Huffington Post article trying to debunk another claim to the origination. That came from a prankster group called the Bebes out of San Jose, who told 420 Magazine an apparently apocryphal story about how they coined "420" two years earlier than the Waldos, however they have no documentation.
The Waldos have their documentation, including postmarked letters from the 70s and a copy of their school newspaper that included a student reference to "420," in a safe deposit box. It's kept at a Wells Fargo bank in San Francisco whose address happens to be 420 Montgomery Street.
Photo: Jeff W/Unsplash
Joe Kukura contributed to this story.