On Wednesday, tens of thousands of Americans will congregate in parks and municipal plazas, surrounded by a cloud of marijuana smoke, to commemorate a drug that is still banned in parts of the country.
April 20th has become synonymous with marijuana, a day when THC-infused clouds swirl, bongos are played, and everyone feels a little love for one another.
But why has the date of 4/20 become so significant?
What is 4/20?
Basically, it’s a day dedicated to all things Mary Jane.
Big rallies will take place in public locations in more than a dozen US states where marijuana is legal, with participants lighting up everything from conventional spliffs to bongs to joints the size of a baby’s arm. Someone is smoking whatever you can think of.
Smaller groups of people will get together outside of the large gatherings to share a joint.
Aficionados argue that these smaller smoke-ins are more in line with 4/20’s roots, which began as an off-the-grid event and has now developed into full-fledged festivals with sponsors and the option of purchasing VIP tickets.
Why April 20th?
The day-long celebration of marijuana appears to have metamorphosed from the number 4/20 in the US system of dates.
There are a several competing ideas about the origins of the number, but none of them is widely accepted.
One theory holds that marijuana contains 420 compounds, while this appears to be an underestimation (it’s closer to 500, according to Vox) or an exaggeration (“scientists have successfully isolated 113 unique cannabinoids,” according to pot bible High Times).
According to findlaw.com, a website for legal professionals, 420 is not the California penal code for possession of the substance (it is; Penal Code 420 indicates that it is a crime to impede access to public lands in the state).
Many of the suggestions include the Grateful Dead, including the allegation that 420 was their preferred hotel room number on their psychedelic travels. Is it possible that all six musicians (together with their entourage) were in the same room? Yes, and a band spokesman has been extensively quoted as denying it.
4/20 was not the death date of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin. They died in July, September, and October, respectively, despite the fact that they were all 27 years old.
One of the more satisfying theories about 4/20 is that 4:20pm was the time that a group of stoners in 1970s California would gather to get high. The Waldos describe themselves as “a group of five wisecracking friends…who originated the term ‘420’ in 1971 at San Rafael High School.”
In the form of letters received after they graduated from high school, their website claims to have documentation of the phrase being used as code for these gatherings and the act of smoking.
Whatever the case may be, the term has entered the lexicon: the Oxford English Dictionary calls it “North American slang” for marijuana, while the Encyclopaedia Britannica says it’s “in current use” (along with “hippie lettuce” as an alternate term for the drug).