A guy holding a 420 sign. (LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
You might call April 20 a Bay Area holiday. Every year on 4/20, at 4:20 p.m., thousands of marijuana users honor the drug, 420, with a celebratory smoke.
But where did the term “420” come from anyway?
Bay Curious listener Jess Lyons grew up in Marin County and always heard the code name had local roots. She asked Bay Curious: Did 420 originate in the Bay Area?
In short, the answer is yes.
The story starts in 1971 with a group of five guys nicknamed the "Waldos.”
“We’re all good friends and we used to hang out on this wall at San Rafael High School on campus, and that’s why we’re called the Waldos,” says Dave Reddix, better known as Waldo Dave.
The Waldos were the jokesters of the school. They were always laughing, playing pranks, impersonating strangers and having a good time. And they got high … a lot.
“We were the guys under the high school grandstands during Friday night football games, smoking a doobie,” Reddix says.
But they weren’t the deadbeat stoners you might be imagining. The Waldos were a curious bunch, who would go on unofficial field trips after school. One time they trekked down to Silicon Valley to see groundbreaking hologram technology. On another trip, they ventured to an off-limits portion of the Golden Gate Bridge. They started calling these adventures "Waldo Safaris."
One day the Waldos got a tip from a high school friend about some marijuana plants ripe for the picking. A few men in the Coast Guard, based out in Point Reyes, were growing the crop but had gotten spooked.
“They thought that their commanding officer was going to bust them,” says Steve Capper, or Waldo Steve. “They didn't want to get busted. They decided, ‘We're going to abandon this growing project.’ ”
The Coast Guardsmen drew a crude map guiding the way to the plants, and it ended up in the hands of the Waldos. Now the friends had a mission for their next Waldo Safari.
“It was a no-brainer. I mean, we're 16 years old. We have no money. It’s free weed,” says Reddix.“We decided we’d meet at 4:20 p.m., on the campus of San Rafael High School, in front of the statue of Louis Pasteur.”
They got high, hopped into Waldo Steve's 1966 Chevy Impala and drove out to Point Reyes to search for the crop.
On their first trip they didn’t find any plants. But they kept trying, again and again, for weeks.
“We would remind each other in the hallways all day long. We’d say ‘420 Louis.’ It was a private joke,” says Capper. “After a few weeks we dropped ‘Louis.’ ”
The Waldos eventually abandoned their hunt for the mythical marijuana patch. But the code 420 stuck around. It was useful. After all, smoking pot was a crime.
“We started using 420 as a code for weed,” says Reddix. “We could use it around our teachers, parents, cops, anybody. They didn't know what it was. It was our own little secret code.”
For a while, 420 was just a Waldos thing, but soon other students at San Rafael High started to pick up on it.
Eventually it made its way to the Grateful Dead, who were rehearsing in San Rafael at the time. Reddix’s brother was managing Phil Lesh’s side bands, and another Waldo’s dad helped the band with real estate.
“We used to shoot baskets outside their rehearsal hall, because the doors would be open and they'd be practicing,” says Reddix. “We could listen to them playing music. It was awesome.”
Once the Dead started saying 420, it was here to stay.
Finding the origin of a word or slang term can be a murky business, but the Waldos have the documentation to back up their story.
There are letters that reference 420, postmarked in the 1970s, which was before the term had widespread use. There’s an art project done by a friend of the Waldos that includes the word 420 next to a marijuana leaf. There’s the mention in the high school newspaper.
Last year the Oxford English Dictionary took a hard look at all this evidence, and now its online dictionary entry for "420" credits “students from San Rafael.”