The Real History of 420

flashing 420

I’m trying to get the facts of 420 up on wikipedia, but, of course, the trolls take down every word I post faster than I can type it.

The 420 code for marijuana was started by students at San Rafael High School in 1971 and spread through their friends and younger siblings at the high school. They were fans of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and often stopped by the Grateful Dead headquarters located near the school to see if any new releases were available. (Jerry Garcia was the original pedal steel player in that group, although he stepped aside to make room for the king of pedal steel, Buddy Cage.)

The annual Grateful Dead tour had captured the center of energy on the counterculture, and kept their winter home in San Rafael, after having moved out of nearby Haight-Asbury after junkies and undercovers ruined the scene. An entire gypsy caravan of merchants followed Dead tour around, many of them also living in Marin County over the winter. Sometime in the 1980s, one of these merchants made a 420 product, most likely, a 25-cent button or sticker. When this button sold out, other merchants got hip to the fact the teenagers in Marin County would buy anything with 420 on it. Meanwhile, the Waldos had long since graduated and moved on and they celebrated 420 for many years, often on April 20th, although their devotion to pot was fading somewhat as many got married and started families.

But in the mid-1980s, teenagers began spontaneously gathering on Mount Tam on April 20th at exactly 4:20 PM. This gathering only lasted three years however, because police ended the celebration as they did not want a massive display of weed smoking going on in the park.

This might have been the end of the 420 phenomenon, except that in 1990, a crude flyer designed to draw people to the Mt. Tam ritual was brought to the High Times office. This flyer had been distributed at a Dead show in Oakland over the Christmas holidays. Honestly, that flyer may have played a part in killing the annual event because the Dead scene was totally penetrated with under-covers and pretty soon, the Mt. Tam ceremony was over.

But when I saw that flyer in 1990, a light bulb went off in my head. I knew Mt. Tam was a very spiritual place, one of the most spiritual spots on the West Coast, in fact. I’d also recently been zapped by attending my first national Rainbow Gathering, which had demonstrated the spirit of Woodstock was alive, just completely ignored by the mainstream. I latched onto the idea that this Mt. Tam ritual was a spontaneous emanation of my culture, which was a baby, infant spirituality being born in my lifetime, a culture I had helped shape as a high school kid, just like the Waldos had shaped 420 while in high school. It takes a long time for a tribe to birth a religion, but eventually, over decades, the rituals and ceremonies fall into place. And its funny how a lot of the new developments come from kids around age 16.

So I started doing a daily 420 ceremony with my staff. We would get high and then talk about anything we wanted. These conversations ended up improving the magazine immensely as well as improving office morale. I’d started the Cannabis Cup as a low-budget event, and had not even attended the last four, instead a different High Times staffer was sent over. But issues had developed at the last one, and for the 6th Cup, I returned with some ideas about how to expand and spiritualize the event. I was bringing my concepts for 420 ceremonies as well as new trophies by Robin Ludwig.

Jack Herer was at that Cup, but when I held a circle at 4:20 PM at the venue, Jack had no idea what 420 signified. And he’d been a vendor on Shakedown Street for a decade, only he lived in LA, not Marin, so that just goes to show that 420 was not that well-known inside the Dead community outside the Bay area. It was primarily a thing for teens growing up in Marin. Since my first Cannabis Cup 420 ceremony sort of fizzled (we had a lot of tension that year at the event and little harmony), I came back the next year and my ideas were a bit more thought out.

I put video of the first real 420 council held at the Cannabis Cup as part of my history of the Cup on youtube. On my way to set-up the first expo venue (Pax Party House), I ran into a guy named Eagle Bill who was carrying a wooden staff. In case you didn’t know, “Pax” means “peace” and I couldn’t have imagined a better venue. Arjan of the Green House had found it and it was located near his only shop naturally. That first real 420 council was a very powerful event. We used Eagle Bill’s staff as a council feather and passed it around to signify the speaker. Ben Dronkers, Arjan, Eagle Bill and I all spoke from the heart. Mark Emery was there and would go home and write a scathing review of the “hippie spirituality.” That was the first indication I got all was not harmony inside the pot culture and some people didn’t want tribal councils or the spirituality that comes with them.

The year after that, for the 8th Cup, Stephen Gaskin was brought in for the first 420 address. Stephen handed out free joints and then give an hour long introduction to non-violent philosophies and concepts about spirituality. Alex and Allyson Grey were also there that year. Rocker T started holding 420 AM ceremonies at the Quentin Hotel, where all the staff was located. At first, I was against this idea, as I wanted the crew well rested so they could work endless hours chopping wood and carrying water, but I did see the benefits of holding a 420 AM ceremony after the awards show. This soon became everyone’s favorite ceremony at the event.

Everything seemed to be going well, but the more successful the magazine and Cup became, the more others wanted to step in and take charge. In my usual fashion, I opted to go home and start studying video. One of John Holmstrom’s columnists, a porn writer named Mike Edison, took over for a brief time. His one big idea was “Potzilla” designed to come out in conjunction with the release of a new version of Godzilla, but that movie flopped before the magazine came out and Edison’s career hit a sandbar.

For a few torturous months, I was brought back in an attempt to guide and tutor Edison and maybe even teach him something. Unfortunately, Edison rejected everything I tried to bring to the table. When the Martin Luther King assassination came back in the news after a civil jury found the government complicit, I offered to have an expert in the field write an analysis of the case as it currently stood. Edison laughed and said nothing new of any importance could possibly be added at this point in history? He had no clue about deep politics or the role played by citizen researchers over the last fifty years.

I broke a major story at the time though when I discovered the Waldos, the creators of 420. When I came back to the office with video interviews and documentation proving their case, Edison dismissed my research as a fantasy. He’d banned my 420 office ceremony, by the way, forcing me and my staff to leave the premises every day at 4:20 in order to hold our that ceremony. He did not like pot, preferring harder stuff. Now Edison decided the Waldos was a fake story and he got others at the magazine to back him up. Soon enough, Edison was history anyway, although he wrote a hatchet job on me in revenge in which he claims I took 420 to “cult-like” extremes. This quote has now ended up on wikipedia, no doubt planted by Edison, which I find really annoying.

For many years, I was the only person openly organizing 420 ceremonies and my company ended up with the url 420 early on because of my efforts in promoting 420. If I was organizing a cult, where is this cult 30 years later? Yes, there’s a 420 cult, but it’s certainly not organized around me and I never even tried to take any credit for anything I started, until all this disinfo started coming out. At this point, I’d say Denver is the center of energy on 420. All I’ve done is try to promote non-violent spirituality as part of 420. Marijuana is the sacrament of my culture, but it’s really all about living in peace, without this constant threat of violence everywhere. If promoting non-violence is a “cult-like” activity, then every religion is a cult.

I only wanted to promote my culture because I’m sickened by the level of violence in the mainstream, and can barely watch many TV shows and films these days. I can’t take the gore. I hope there are some like me who are looking for a path towards a more peaceful lifestyle and I’m hoping we can eventually put our energies together for a better future for our kids. I did not invent or organize this culture. I am just another member.

I know it’s probably hopeless for me to get any of this information on wikipedia, as it will all be considered self promotion. The best thing you can do is pass this info so others know the truth about 420. No, it’s not a police code. Yes, like all numbers, there are lots of instances of others using 420 much earlier in time. But the 420 that’s celebrated today all across the world? That started with the Waldos, was promoted by the teens of Marin County, and then found it’s way to the Cannabis Cup. Within a decade, it went global.

True story.


Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

3 thoughts on “The Real History of 420”

  1. I love you Brother. Working with you through the years has been a wonderful journey. I started reading High Times in the 70’s, even collecting the magazine back to the first issue. I have followed the ups and downs of the magazine, attended and judged a bunch of Cups, being fortunate enough to have drawn the face on many of the events. All of this because of your kindness and generosity.

    I’ll take “hippie spirituality” over mainstream religion any day of the week. You promote peace through love and understanding. People can say what they want about you, but your stance on drug policy and more importantly, the moral stance you have taken on misguided policies and deeds of those in power, shaped my world view and made me a better person, for that, I can never thank you enough.

    The world needs more journalists like Steven Hagar in the world. It would be a much better place.

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