After recording our upcoming 4/20 podcast, it occurred to me that I should have mentioned the time I wrote a 4/20 article for my high school newspaper, back when I was an innocent not-yet-pothead. So I decided to pull the article from my archives to share here...
We’ve all seen it adorning desks, scratched into lockers, and scribbled in the margins of notebooks… but what exactly does 420 mean? Referred to by some as the “Hippy New Year,” 4:20 is generally considered a traditional time or date for smoking marijuana, or simply a cryptic code signifying this illicit activity. As April 20th approaches, it seems like an opportune time to consider the origins of this cultural enigma.
The most repeated explanation for the significance of 420 is that the San Rafael police department in California defined a “420” radio call as “pot-smoking in progress.” The department denies this rumor, however, claiming that there is no such code. While this popular myth is false, it does seem to have some basis in fact, as another, more realistic 420 legend also begins in San Rafael, California. Twelve teenagers referring to themselves as “The Waldos” attended the San Rafael High School in the 1970s. School ended at 3:10, and many of the Waldos participated in after-school activities that lasted for approximately an hour, so every day they would meet at 4:20 pm next to a statue of Louis Pasteur and smoke together. This is the most likely explanation, but there are many other baffling rumors and legends surrounding the 4:20 phenomenon, some of which are true, most of which are not. Many people believe that there are 420 chemicals in cannabis. This may indeed be true, as there are at least four hundred and probably more chemical components in the drug. Grateful Dead Productions spokesman Dennis McNally denies the myth that when the Grateful Dead toured, they always stayed in room 420. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20th, as were Carmen Electra and Joey Lawrence, although those dates may be less pertinent.
420 appears in movies and literature in a plethora of ways. Pulp Fiction is rumored to have all clocks set to 4:20 throughout the movie. This is not actually true for the entire film, but many of the clocks are indeed set to twenty minutes after four. Other movies with references to 420 include Jackie Brown and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
The number has been shrouded in an air of mystery since long before the 1970s. In his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes, “420 has been, since time immemorial, the number associated with fraud, deception, and trickery.” 4:20 is a time when people leave, as in Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and a time when they arrive, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s Prin.
This year, further complications may arise, as April 20th also happens to be Easter, creating difficulty for some. 420 may mean something special to you, or it may simply mark the end of your afternoon nap, but either way, perhaps you should think twice the next time you hear the popular nursery rhyme about “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” Is 420 just another number, or it is something more?