While not officially a holiday, 420 has become one of the most universally celebrated days – in the sense that it is not specific to any region, ethnic group, gender, or religion/spirituality. Anyone who uses, or even just appreciates cannabis, is welcome to join in the festivities! It’s one of the most inclusive ‘holidays’ that exists. The purpose of 420 is pretty cut and dry: to commemorate weed in all its natural, healing, and stoney glory. Its origins, however, remain a bit hazier. There are so many different 420 stories out there and if you’ve been smoking weed for a while you’ve likely heard quite a few…
Some say it’s the number of active chemicals in pot (this is somewhat factual, as there are roughly 400 compounds in the cannabis plant, but the term ‘420’ predates this information). Others believe it’s a code to denote cannabis possession by law enforcement (completely inaccurate, no such code exists). A handful of people think it has to with an older California senate bill called SB 420 (this does exist, but again, 420 came before the bill). And many others believe it has to do with one or more celebrities, typically named are Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan (also incorrect).
The real story of how 420 came to be is a little more mundane, but actually pretty cool when you consider that it all started as an inside joke between friends. Who is this infamous group of forward-thinking youth, you may be asking? Well, this is where things get more complicated. Two rival groups from California, the Waldos and the Bebes, claim to have coined the term; and this seemingly small disagreement has spawned into a decades-long dispute (one that is still ongoing might I add) over the true history behind 420.
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The Well-Known Waldos Story
The most popular 420 origin story is that of the Waldos. The first thing to keep in mind about this story, is that even though we write it as a calendar date, ‘4/20’, and it is now celebrated on that day, it really should be displayed as a time, ‘4:20’. Now, this particular narrative follows a group of five teens from San Rafael, California, who were appropriately nicknamed “the Waldos” due to their preferred hang out spot – a wall outside of their high school. In the fall of 1971, the Waldos heard about a coast guard member who planted some cannabis but was no longer able to tend to it.
Every day after school, they would pile into a car, smoke some buds, and search the Point Reyes Forest for this legendary crop (they called this their daily “safari”). Their regular meeting time? 4:20 p.m. They never found the elusive crop, but they did however start a trend at their high school. The phrase “420” quickly spread around the student body because it allowed teens to talk about cannabis openly while their parents and teachers were none the wiser.
Trends spread around high schools all the time, but how did the term 420 skyrocket to an internationally known phrase? That took some star power, for which we have the Grateful Dead to thank. The Waldos had connections with the Grateful Dead: Mark Gravitch’s father managed the band’s real estate and Dave Reddix’s older brother was good friends with Phil Lesh, the Dead’s bassist.
At a Dead concert during Christmas weekend 1990, then High Times reporter Steve Bloom was handed a flyer that read, “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” Once High Times printed a story about the event, accompanied by a photo of the flyer, it was game over and 420 spread like wildfire. The official story connecting the Waldos, to the Grateful Dead, to 420, came out in 1998.
The Alternative Bebes’ 420 Tale
As far as 420 stories go, the Waldos one is the most well-known and widely accepted. But over the years, another group of friends has come out to oppose the Waldos’ account and offer up their own version of events. According to members of the group, the Bebes, who were led by Brad Bann (AKA the Bebe), they are the ones who invented the term.
Their explanation is quite simple: One day after school, they got together to smoke bongs and record music, the time was exactly 4:20pm. During the session, Bann began to “channel his inner Abraham Lincoln” by singing “four score and twenty years ago”, referencing the time they had met to smoke and because he was known for his deep, booming, Lincoln-like voice. As per the Bebes, this occurred in 1970, which is before the Waldos’ story that took place in 1971.
Interestingly, the Bebes and Waldos knew each other rather well. Bebe Brad Bann and Waldo Steve Capper were friends for many years before drifting apart in their teens. Additionally, there were a handful of ‘neutral party’ floater friends who hung out with both groups, so terminology could have easily spread between cliques. “We had what we called charter Waldos — sort of alternate Waldos, so if one Waldo was gone they could fill in,” said Capper. “They had the same sense of humor; they knew all our gags, all our impersonations, all our little catchphrases.”
Evidence to the contrary
Over the last couple of decades there has been a long-term feud between these two groups going on in the press. Granted, it’s not something that’s grabbing headlines all year, but every 4/20, it comes up. In the early 2000s, the Bebes first came out with their counter to the Waldos’ story. But, anyone can say whatever they want about anything and that doesn’t necessarily make it true, so the fact that Bebes publicly disputed the Waldos’ story is not enough to confirm validity.
However, Bebes members are adamant that they are the ones who devised ‘420’ as a catchphrase, and adding insult to injury, Brad Bann also claims to be the one who gave the Waldos their infamous nickname (ouch). Obviously, the Waldos have not been happy about this, and the debate rages on. Either way, the term continued gaining momentum throughout the 80s and 90s.
Remember that High Times flyer from 1990 that I mentioned earlier? Well, the following year, High Times published a follow up article that included an image of that flyer and some information about how ‘420’ came to be… but they got the story wrong. The High Times story claims that the Waldos got it from a police code for smoking pot, but we know that nothing like that ever existed.
This actually makes a point for the Bebes, assuming they truly did start it and the Waldos never knew the real story behind it, so they gave a fake story about the police code before realizing that could be fact-checked and changing their story to something more casual. Either that, or the High Times writer/editor who worked on the story at the time got their information mixed up.
Conversely, the Waldos claim to have “multiple pieces of physical evidence/proof” that they were the first to use the term ‘420’ in relation to cannabis. On their website, they report having documents and 420-embellished items that are “preserved in a high-security bank safety deposit vault, they have been and will continue to be available for inspection/documentation by Official Press.”
While everyone agrees it was the Waldos’ connections with the Grateful Dead that popularized 420, the stories diverge from there. The Waldos did come out with a story first, and they also have more physical, documented evidence of their use of the word dating back to the early 1970s, but again, none of that is concrete evidence that they invented the phrase, only that they were quick to utilize it conversationally and adorn all their gear with the term. But, there are some solid considerations that make the Bebes’ story plausible as well.
If you’re dying to learn more about this topic, each group has a documentary in the works. Release dates TBA, but it will be interesting to see if the full truth behind the origins of 420 ever comes to light. In the meantime, click here to learn more about 4/20 celebrations and check out some great product deals!
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