April 20 has come and gone like a puff of smoke from a bong, but the stoner’s New Year has a long history of which most people are not aware. While cynics may say 420 (pronounced four-twenty) is just a lousy excuse for pot-heads to do what they usually do with a clear conscience, I set out to find the historical significance of the magic number.
Like most people, I started the search with my own ideas and preconceived notions from my “research” at many late night social circles. I firmly believed the number came from Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Woman # 12 and 35.” You see, 12 multiplied by 35 equals none other than 420. In the same song Dylan chants, “everybody must get stoned” over and over again. I am not a math major, but that certainly burns in my bowl. Unfortunately, once I did some research, I found my “Rainy Day Woman” theory is only one of several 420 myths that have developed over the years, and it is not even the most convincing.
The most popular theory is that 420 is a police radio code in the California region for cannabis consumption. However, the myth is just that – a complete fallacy. The number 420 in any police radio penal code in California denotes a misdemeanor for the hindrance of public land. Instead of 420, the police California Health and Safety Code for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is 11357b. In fact, the entire drug-related Health and Safety code has five numerical digits, as opposed to three, and all the marijuana codes end with a letter.
The implications of this common belief are far-reaching. It does not exist, yet most of the people I talked to believed the police code myth was the most viable and logical significance behind 420.
“Well, that sucks!” exclaimed a junior who wished to remain anonymous,after I revealed the truth about the radio-code theory. It is true – some frequent marijuana users find it disappointing that everything they believed about 420 is a lie.
Others said they thought 420 came from the number of active chemicals in marijuana. This is also untrue. There are an average of 315 active chemicals in marijuana, depending on the variety of the plant.
There is one theory that does seem to check out, however. According to Steve Hager, editor of High Times magazine, a group of California yahoos at San Rafael High School began the tradition in 1971. The group of about a dozen teenagers called themselves the Waldos, and at 4:20 p.m. every day, they would meet at a campus statue of philosopher Louis Pasteur to smoke marijuana. They would comically salute each other in the high school hallways between classes reminding each other about the end-of-the-day events by saying, “420 Louis!”
Hager reported in the December 1998 edition of High Times that the Waldos presented him with some early ’70s postmarked letters in which 420 was used several times in correspondence between members of the Waldos. These letters were written