How ‘420’ Became the Stoner’s Call to Order
Not surprisingly, the favorite time of stoners everywhere is steeped in misinformation.
Published: April 17, 2013
The Waldos had more than just a geographic connection to the Dead. Mark Waldo’s father took care of real estate for the Dead. And Waldo Dave’s older brother, Patrick, managed a Dead sideband and was good friends with bassist Phil Lesh. Patrick says that he smoked with Lesh on numerous occasions. He couldn’t recall if he used the term 420 around him, but guessed that he must have.
The Dead, recalls Waldo Steve, “had this rehearsal hall on Front Street in San Rafael, Calif., and they used to practice there. So we used to go hang out and listen to them play music and get high while they’re practicing for gigs. But I think it’s possible my brother Patrick might have spread it through Phil Lesh. And me too, because I was hanging out with Lesh and his band when they were doing a summer tour my brother was managing.”
The band that Patrick managed was called Too Loose to Truck and featured not only Lesh but rock legend David Crosby and acclaimed guitarist Terry Haggerty. The Waldos also had open access to Dead parties and rehearsals. “We’d go with [Mark’s] dad, who was a hip dad from the ’60s,” Steve says. “There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.”
Lesh, walking off the stage after a recent Dead concert, confirmed that Patrick is a friend and said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Waldos had coined 420. He wasn’t sure, he said, when the first time he heard it was. “I do not remember. I’m very sorry. I wish I could help,” he said. Wavy-Gravy is a hippie icon with his own ice cream flavor and has been hanging out with the Dead for decades. Spotted outside the concert, he was asked about the origin of 420 and suggested it began “somewhere in the foggy mists of time. What time is it now? I say to you: eternity now.”
As the Grateful Dead toured the globe through the ’70s and ’80s, playing hundreds of shows a year, the term spread through the Dead underground. Once High Times got hip to it, the magazine helped take it global. “I started incorporating it into everything we were doing,” High Times editor Steve Hager said. “I started doing all these big events — the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup — and 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.”
Sometime in the early ’90s, High Times wisely purchased the Web domain 420.com. Bloom, the reporter who first stumbled on it, gives High Times less credit. “We posted that flier and then we started to see little references to it. It wasn’t really much of High Times’ doing,” he says. “We weren’t really pushing it that hard, just kind of referencing the phrase.”
The Waldos say that, within a few years, the term had spread throughout San Rafael and was cropping up elsewhere in the state. By the early ’90s, it had penetrated deep enough that Dave and Steve started hearing people use it in unexpected places — Ohio, Florida, Canada — and spotted it painted on signs and etched into park benches.
In 1997, the Waldos decided to set the record straight and got in touch with High Times. “They said, ‘The fact is, there is no 420 [police] code in California. You guys ever look it up?’” Blooms recalls. He had to admit that no, he had never looked it up. Hager flew out to San Rafael, met the Waldos, examined their evidence, spoke with others in town, and concluded they were telling the truth. Hager still believes them. “No one’s ever been able to come up with any use of 420 that predates the 1971 usage, which they had established. So unless somebody can come up with something that predates them, then I don’t think anybody’s going to get credit for it other than them,” he says.
“We never made a dime on the thing,” says Dave, half boasting, half lamenting. He does take pride in his role, though. “I still have a lot of friends who tell their friends that they know one of the guys that started the 420 thing. So it’s kind of like a cult celebrity thing. Two years ago I went to the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. High Times magazine flew me out,” says Dave. Dave is now a credit analyst and works for Steve, who owns a specialty lending institution and lost money to the con artist Bernie Madoff. He spends more time today, he says, composing angry letters to the SEC than he does getting high. The other three Waldos have also been successful, Steve says. One is head of marketing for a Napa Valley winery. Another is in printing and graphics. A third works for a roofing and gutter company. “He’s like, head of their gutter division,” says Steve, who keeps in close touch with them all. “I’ve got to run a business. I’ve got to stay sharp,” says Steve, explaining why he rarely smokes pot anymore. “Seems like everybody I know who smokes daily, or many times in a week, it seems like there’s always something going wrong with their life, professionally, or in their relationships, or financially or something. It’s a lot of fun, but it seems like if someone does it too much, there’s some karmic cost to it.” “I never endorsed the use of marijuana. But, hey, it worked for me,” Waldo Dave says. “I’m sure on my headstone it’ll say: ‘One of the 420 guys.’”
Ryan Grim is a staff writer for Huffington Post. This story originally ran on huffingtonpost.com and has been reprinted with permission by the author. Grim is also the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America.
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