This Tuesday marks a holy day in the cannabis calendar, with weed aficionados around the world gearing up for the annual 4/20 celebration. As the event’s profile has grown in recent decades, the figure 420 has become synonymous with pot culture, yet a question mark remains over the origins of the number’s association with cannabis: though a group of friends known as The Waldos have largely been credited with starting the 420 movement, their claim to ownership of the term has recently been disputed by a rival group.
From 420 to 4/20
Regardless of who first started using the number 420 in connection with cannabis, we can say for sure that the annual festival began to catch on in the early 90s, and owes its global popularity to both The Grateful Dead and High Times Magazine.
Back in December 1990, High Times reporter Steve Bloom attended one of the Dead’s concerts in Oakland, California. While walking through the parking lot before the gig, he was handed a yellow flyer announcing the birth of 4/20, and providing details of a weed-themed get-together scheduled for the following April 20th.
“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,” explained the leaflet. To clarify what this meant, the flyer went on to state that “420 started somewhere in San Rafael, California in the late ‘70s. It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress. After local heads heard of the police call, they started using the expression 420 when referring to herb – Let’s Go 420, dude!”
“After a while something magical happened. People began getting stoned at 4.20 am and/or pm.”
In reality, the flyer’s claims were somewhat faulty, and no such police code existed. Regardless, the pamphlet continued by stating that “there’s something even more grand than getting baked at 4.20. We’re talking about the day of celebration, the real time to get high, the grand master of all holidays: 4/20 or April 20th. This is when you must get the day off work or school.”
High Times decided to publish the flyer in its May 1991 edition (just after this inaugural 4/20 meeting had taken place), and then continued to reference the number 420, cementing its place in the cannabis lexicon. Reflecting on the magazine’s role in the birth of 420, former editor Steve Hager told the Huffington Post that “I started incorporating it into everything we were doing… we built everything around 420. The publicity that High Times gave it is what made it an international thing. Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture. But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.”
Enter The Waldos – Founders Of 420
For the first few years after the inception of the 4/20 holiday, no one had any idea who was behind the original use of the number. However, in the late 90s Hager received an email from a man named Steve Capper, stating that he and his friends – who called themselves the Waldos – had invented the term back in 1971.
“The Waldos are the true originators, the founding fathers of 420, and I would be willing to put up as much as $1,000 of my own money for the Waldos to be tested by polygraph or stress-voice analysis to prove our claim,” wrote Capper, adding “I assure you we would pass.”
Hager then flew out to San Rafael to meet Capper and the other Waldos –Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich – who proved their claim by showing him postmarked letters that they had written to each other in the early 70s, in which they regularly referenced 420 in relation to cannabis.
Hager then published the group’s story in 1998, declaring the Waldos to be the true inventors of 420 and the inspiration for the 4/20 holiday.
As his write-up recounts, the five friends had all attended San Rafael High School together, and took their name from the fact that they habitually met by a wall on the school’s campus, which was overlooked by a statue of French scientist Louis Pasteur. In 1971, the Waldo’s received word about a local coast guard who had abandoned his plot of marijuana plants in Point Reyes, and vowed to find it.
Armed with a hand-drawn map revealing the plot’s location, the Waldos began meeting every day at 4.20 pm – by which time their various after-school activities had ended – in order to venture out to Point Reyes in search of the fabled stash.
“We’d meet at 4:20 and get in my old ‘66 Chevy Impala and, of course, we’d smoke instantly and smoke all the way out to Point Reyes and smoke the entire time we were out there,” says Capper – aka Waldo Steve.
Unfortunately, the Waldos never did find the weed patch, but their antics did lead to the emergence of the code-word ‘420’. “We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis,” continues Capper.
While the term began as a general code for cannabis, its uses and meanings quickly multiplied, so that it came to denote a whole host of phrases and questions, such as “do you have any weed?” or “do I look stoned.”
From these humble beginnings, the term soon entered Deadhead parlance thanks to Waldo Dave’s brother, Patrick, who happened to know the Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and managed one of his side-projects. Through Patrick, Dave got a job as a roadie for Lesh’s band, and introduced him and his fans to 420. Exactly who decided to make the flyer calling for a cannabis holiday on April 20th, however, is still a mystery.
The 420 Dispute
In 2012, almost 15 years after the Waldos were first revealed as the inventors of 420, an individual named ‘Bone Boy’ wrote a letter to 420 Magazine, claiming that he and his friends were the true founders of the term.
According to Bone Boy, the first person ever to use the number in relation to pot was his friend Brad Bann, also known as The Bebe and leader of a separate group of San Rafael High School students collectively referred to as The Bebes.
“Quite simply, the birth of 420 occurred at precisely 4:20 in the afternoon to begin a bedroom bong session at the house of [Bebes members] Du and Puff on a Saturday in October of 1970,” said Bone Boy. “The Bebe along with the brothers began preparing to “bong out”, when Bebe glanced at the clock on the nightstand and said, “it’s 4:20, time for bong loads”.”
While the letter does go on to concede that The Waldos were probably responsible for helping to popularise the term among fans of the Grateful Dead, it accuses them of stealing it from the Bebes. What’s more, Bone Boy goes on to claim that it was Bebe who originally gave the Waldos their name, and that the moniker is in fact a reference to their “goofy” nature.
According to 420 Magazine editor Rob Griffin, Bone Boy’s story was corroborated by ten other members of the Bebes, including Dan Dixon – aka Puff – who claimed that the Waldos have admitted to him that they stole the term.
The following year, the Waldos published a response to these claims, asserting that “the 420 Magazine story is based 100 percent on hearsay.”
“Five of us Waldos NEVER heard Bebes, or anyone else, use the number 420 as a marijuana reference before the Waldos started using it,” they wrote, before going on to point out that they are the only group with any proof of their use of the term. They have even set up their own website, 420waldos.com, that documents all of this evidence.
The Bebes, meanwhile, claim that they regularly made audio recordings of their bong sessions, and that many of these feature Bebe using the term 420. However, when 420 Magazine asked to hear some of these recordings, all members of the group claimed to have lost their copies.
Addressing some of Bone Boy’s other claims, the Waldos wrote that “contrary to what the article says, the Bebe did NOT name the Waldos and did NOT ordain the Waldos… those are outright absolute lies.”
Finally, in response to Puff’s claim that the group had admitted to stealing the term, the Waldos asserted that “these statements are 100 percent total and absolute LIES. The Waldos have never ever said any such thing at any time.”
While the debate has never been officially settled, it must count for something that only the Waldos have managed to present any evidence for their use of the number 420 in the early 1970s. Regardless of how the term came into existence, though, there’s no better time to put aside all disputes and spark up a joint in solidarity with stoners around the world than 4/20.