We all know that “666” is the devil. And that a “10” is Bo Derek, or her equivalent. And just ask any six-year-old what No. 1 and No. 2 are.
Then there’s 420.
What’s 420? By common consent, it’s code for marijuana use. Which makes April 20, an unofficial stoner’s holiday.
Note that we said unofficial. Not only is 420 not a legal observance, it is — in New Jersey, anyway — very much an illegal observance.
On 4/20, at 4:20 p.m., look for stealth smokers. Especially at 420 420th Street, if there’s one in your neighborhood.
Why 420? Why not 527? Or 289?
That’s another story. One shrouded in mystery, and cannabis smoke.
“No one knows exactly the true story,” says Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, a year-old trade organization, based in Trenton, that represents the state’s infant cannabis industry.
The mystery is part of the point. For pot smokers, “420” has always been a kind of secret handshake, undetectable to the squares. “Time to light up” is the general idea, rendered in standard English.
It’s been said that “420” is police radio code for a drug offense (wrong). It’s been said that “420” is the number of chemical compounds in marijuana (wrong).
It’s been said that “420” is “tea time” in Holland, known for its lax drug laws (wrong). It’s been said “420” commemorates the date when Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison died (wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong).
The most plausible account is that “420” first began to be used around 1971, by a group of high school stoners in San Rafael, about 20 miles north of San Francisco.
These guys, who called themselves “The Waldoes,” would meet in front of a statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 p.m. on schooldays to light up. “4:20, Louis,” they would say, passing each other in the halls. This being Northern California, “420” made its way into the Deadhead culture, and from there into the rest of America.
“How it spread is a mystery,” Rudder says. “But the reality is, it’s here.”
In 2009, “420” was an episode of “Family Guy” (Brian and Stewie launch a campaign to legalize cannabis). From California to Guam, proposals to regulate or legalize marijuana have appeared on the docket as “Bill 420.”
Road signs with the number “420” are frequently stolen by pranksters. In Goodhue County, Minnesota, signs for 420th Street had to be changed to “42X Street” after dozens of signs disappeared, according to the state’s Post-Bulletin.
As the movement to legalize marijuana has gained ground, 420 festivals and demonstrations have become annual events. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, New York’s Washington Square, Denver’s Civic Center Park, are just a few of the places that have hosted April 20 jubilees.
“It’s become a pseudo-holiday, not so different than St. Patrick’s or Mardi Gras,” Rudder says. “People celebrate with friends or family.”
So far, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states — including New Jersey — and Washington D.C. Recreational marijuana is legal in eight, and in Washington D.C.
Many critics, including our current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, continue to argue that marijuana is a scourge, and take strong exception to any attempts to normalize it. But as legalization spreads, people in the nascent cannabis industry are looking at the 420 celebrations as a teachable moment.
A moment, almost literally. After all, there isn’t a 4:20 p.m., 4/20, every day.
“We’re using it as a means of education, and people coming together,” Rudder says. “It’s an opportunity for awareness, for understanding cannabis different ways, from a medical perspective, from a social justice perspective.
“Let’s be frank, it’s also something people enjoy.”