Once a year, on the 20th April, thousands of cannabis users and supporters worldwide gather to celebrate the plant or challenge its illegal status. But what is 4/20? Where did it come from, and why is it so important?
What is 4/20?
4/20, or the 20th April, is an annual worldwide celebration of all things weed. Originating in 1970s America, it takes its name from the US date format where the month is written before the day. With the day’s increasing popularity and commercialisation, ‘420’ has transcended the 20th April to become a common reference for smoking weed on any day of the year.
Where did 4/20 come from?
The rumours regarding 4/20’s origin story are numerous. From the birth or death of Bob Marley and California’s penal code, to Bob Dylan’s music and the chemicals in the cannabis plant. Many theories have been debunked, but the one that remains the most plausible concerns a group of Californian high school students.
The story goes that in 1971, five San Rafael High School students, known collectively as ‘the Waldos’, first used the term in relation to a Goonie-esque search for a hidden cannabis crop. One day, while they were sitting on a wall outside the school, a friend handed one of the Waldos a treasure map. The treasure? Weed.
The Waldos agreed to meet after school at 4:20pm by a statue of Louis Pasteur to begin their adventure. Throughout the day they would remind each other of their after school quest by saluting in the corridor and saying ‘420 Louie’. When the time came, they hopped in the car and headed for where ‘X’ marks the spot.
Whilst they never managed to find the mystical crop, they potentially discovered something even better. From that day on the Waldos used ‘420’ as a code word for smoking weed, unbeknownst to their teachers and family.
However, 420 might have stayed as nothing more than an inside joke between the Waldos, had it not been for their connections to the inner circle of the Grateful Dead. There are a number of ways in which the group may have been connected to the band. Some articles state that a dad of one of the Waldos helped the band with real estate and one of their brothers was close with bassist, Phil Lesh. Others propose that one of the Waldos was actually a roadie for the band. Whatever it was that connected the friends to the band, it wasn’t long before the Deadhead community caught on to the phrase, and ‘420’ began appearing in Grateful Dead flyers as a code for weed.
In 1998, one of the founding members of the Waldos, Steve Capper sent an email to the editor of High Times Magazine, Steven Hager, explaining the origin story of the term. The article was then published in December 1998. Since then 420 has become a worldwide phenomenon and celebration.
Why is 4/20 important?
For many, 4/20 is as important as any other public holiday due to the symbolism it holds for cannabis users. In a number of countries, recreational cannabis is still illegal, including the UK where it is classified as a class B substance and possession could land you with up to 5 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. Unfortunately, the government’s increasingly hard line against drugs means that this is unlikely to change any time soon.
Despite this, 4/20 remains a key day of celebration for cannabis users and supporters to come together to celebrate the plant and campaign against prohibition.
What 4/20 events are happening this year in the UK?
A number of events take place across the world to recognise 4/20. In the UK, the main celebrations take place in Hyde Park, London. Although the event has been scaled back over the last few years due to COVID restrictions, this year is business as usual.
There aren’t any specific guidelines for the event, but most festivities begin at 12pm and wrap up around 6pm, although some arrive earlier/stay later. As celebrations are open to all, there is no need to sign up to attend the event, simply turn up.
In the past police have been urged to use their discretion during the event to avoid the mass criminalisation of cannabis users during the day. In 2018, the event organisers claimed to have negotiated a ‘safe conduct zone’ with the Met, where smoking weed discreetly would be tolerated. Despite this, police still made 20 arrests at the Hyde Park event that year.
With this, those looking to attend this year should bear in mind that although police are asked to tolerate cannabis usage for the day, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. As cannabis remains a class B substance in the UK, possession can be met with criminal sanctions. If the police choose to avoid prosecution then you may still be met with a warning or £90 on-the-spot fine.
To minimise the risk of prosecution, those using medical cannabis should bring a copy of their prescription and/or Cancard medical ID. Although this isn’t a fail-safe way of preventing interaction with the police for possession of cannabis, it is an additional step that patients can take to cover themselves.
This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.