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The Inside Dope on
Saturday April 20 10:11 AM EDT
By SHAWN HUBLER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
* When, where and why did innocuous numbers become a sly
reference to 'pot smoker'? Its history is hazy but the smoke
may finally be clearing on the real story.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Today is Saturday, April 20. Dude! Do you
have any idea what that means?
Brad Olsen does. For three years the 36-year-old entrepreneur
has been trying to get today's date into alignment with his
annual How Weird Street Faire, a celebration of, among other
things, peace, music, tech, the counterculture and space
aliens. This year--just as the energy drink Red Bull pulled
out as festival sponsor, leaving him short of promotional
funding--Olsen finally scored the calendrical convergence that
means so much to so many in his target demographic.
"I mean, that date, that number, four-twenty, just resonates
with--" he suddenly paused, considering whether to just blurt
it out: dope smokers. Finally he laughed, "That date's just
embedded now in stoner lingo. Which was why I wanted it." In a
phenomenon that has turned a snippet of street slang into an
almost mainstream sales gimmick, the number 420--and its
temporal counterparts, 4:20 and 4/20--have quietly risen from
the lexicon of marijuana users to become countercultural
marketing tools. Never mind that pot remains a controlled
substance, that court battles rage over the legality of
medical marijuana, that the Bush administration has linked
drug use to the support of international terrorist networks.
"Four-twenty"--once an obscure Bay Area term for pot--is
showing up nationally in the advertisements and business names
of concert promoters, travel agencies, even high-tech
Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing Co., launched six years ago by a
group of entrepreneurs in their 20s, sells its 420 Pale Ale in
supermarkets and opens its doors to the public at 4:20 p.m
Mondays through Thursdays. New York's 420 Tours sells low-cost
travel packages to the Netherlands and Jamaica. Highway 420
Radio broadcasts "music for the chemically enhanced" online.
The founders of Sacramento-based 420net.com, meanwhile, chose
their name not because their start-up, which specializes in
Web servers, has a party angle, but because their target
customers are online game players--a group that tends to be
male, single, young and hip to adolescent underground lingo.
Kris Greenough, a 23-year-old co-founder, conceded that if the
reference was intentionally misleading, it was also "catchy,
shall we say."
The hook extends, as well, to the event business. Scores of
countercultural-themed gatherings are scheduled nationally for
today, from a Washington, D.C., rally against the war on
terrorism to the national convention of the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in San
Francisco's Union Square. The Bay Area alone has slated at
least half a dozen events, including the Cannabis Action
Network's 6th Annual 420 Hemp Fest, an ad hoc smoke-in on Mt.
Tamalpais in Marin County and a "420" night at a Mission
District bar, featuring glass pipe vendors and a nurse who
home-delivers organic pot brownies.
San Francisco Police Inspector Sherman Ackerson says the
department won't be cracking down, due to the city's
"laissez-faire" stance on pot possession. Drug abuse
prevention groups, not surprisingly, are less nonchalant about
it. Last year, the forReal.org Web site of the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services' Center for Substance Abuse
Prevention put out a public service document titled, "It's
4:20--Do You Know Where Your Teen Is?"
"The 420 icon is very well recognized in the subculture of
marijuana users, and now it is being used very skillfully to
brand," said Alvera Stern, who heads the center's federal
division of prevention, application and education. The
mainstreaming of terms like "420," she said, gives the false
impression that pot smoking is socially acceptable and
"It gives credence to a marijuana user's perception that
everyone is doing it, in spite of data from four major
national surveys showing the majority of people have never
used marijuana in their lives," Stern said.
But, at least in some cases, the "420" hook is less about
getting high than about getting attention.
"I don't want my thing to be a big smoke-out," said Olsen, who
has hired private security guards to make sure his expected
crowd of 3,000 revelers doesn't do anything too blatantly
illegal. "But it's a memorable date: 'The How Weird Street
Faire. 420.' Boom. That makes an impression. And I need an
impression, because this thing costs $3,000 to $5,000 on the
front end and I don't have much of a marketing budget this
How a random three-digit number became a pot euphemism is, in
itself, a story. Either that, or something from the annals of
Cheech & Chong.
Links between youth culture and the number surfaced after the
April 20, 1999, Columbine massacre, when some postulated that
the shooters chose the date of their rampage to coincide
either with Hitler's birthday or some date of unspecified
importance to teenage youth culture. Well before that,
however, pager-toting suburban adolescents throughout the
country used the three digits as a code for smoking marijuana.
And in 1991, High Times magazine, a staunch promoter of the
420 phenomenon, published an item on a flier that a staffer
found circulating at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland: "WAKE
'N' BAKE. Smoke Pot At 4:20," the flier reportedly said.
The term, however, appears to have been coined long before
then, according to those who have tracked it. Stern, for
example, says she heard it as long ago as the late 1980s, when
she was working with young people in a Pennsylvania drug
treatment facility. Ron Angier, field supervisor for the Marin
District of California State Parks, has recollections that are
older still, from his first days as a park ranger 22 years ago
on Mt. Tamalpais.
"Crowds of teenagers just started showing up on the mountain
at 4:20 p.m. on April 20," Angier said. "Maybe a thousand kids
went up one year to Bolinas Ridge, this open vista that
overlooks the Pacific Ocean and Stinson Beach."
At first, he said, the authorities viewed it as a harmless
spring-fever ditch day or, later, a
perhaps-overly-enthusiastic Earth Day observation. But soon
the annual al fresco smoke-in clogged the two-lane mountain
roads with parked cars. "Occasionally we'd have injuries,
either from accidents or overdoses," said Angier. "We started
having to close down the mountain because it was becoming
Finally, in the mid-1990s, the pilgrimage dissipated, to the
point that Angier, who now supervises the Mt. Tamalpais ranger
station, plans no increase in park enforcement this year. The
"Well, I think this generation has more to do than to just run
up to Mt. Tam and get loaded," Angier said. "Also 420 is a
nationwide thing now. The events are all over, not just here."
That still doesn't explain what the number 420 has to do with
marijuana. One theory holds that there are exactly 420
chemical components in marijuana. (Untrue, say the experts).
Another is that when the Grateful Dead toured, they always
stayed in Room 420. (Also untrue, says Grateful Dead
Productions spokesman Dennis McNally.)
"My kids' little skateboard friends in Oregon used to tell me
that 420 was police code for a pot bust," laughed Carolyn
"Mountain Girl" Adams, a former wife of the Dead's late
guitarist Jerry Garcia, repeating yet another popular, but
"But I never heard the term before the 1990s," she said,
speaking by cell phone from a park bench in Colorado, where
she had gone to catch the tour of String Cheese Incident, a
Dead-inspired jam band.
"We always just said, you know, 'joints' or 'doobies,' or 'Js'
or whatever. 'Four-twenty' was a '90s thing that traveled the
way hula hoops and Frisbees traveled, along the youth net. Via
the hackey-sack crowd."
In fact, the only documented story behind the 420 phenomenon
is the most comically mundane one, starring a group of
now-middle-aged former slackers at San Rafael High School in
1971. One--now a commercial lender in San Francisco--told the
story on condition that he be referred to only by his first
"I have a lot of clients in L.A., I'm 47 years old, I don't
smoke anymore and I run an $80-million-a-year business," the
wiry father of one said, sitting in a small, cubicle-filled
office on the 12th floor of a Financial District high-rise.
His desk was filled with snapshots of his 6-year-old daughter,
his suit was pinstriped and his filing cabinet sported a
plaque from the Better Business Bureau. The only evidence of
his assertion that "I'm still an old hippie" was the pair of
sneakers he wore around the office instead of the dress shoes
he kept under his desk, for meetings.
Few of his old friends, he said, still smoke pot with much
frequency. (One, now a Marin County father of two who is a
sales representative for a Burbank-based notions company, said
in a later phone interview that the last time he got the urge,
he had to hide in the garage so his wife and kids wouldn't see
The men said they didn't mind telling their story for
posterity, but at this point in their lives, they have too
much at stake to speak for attribution. "As my wife says,
'Where's the upside?' " laughed Steve.
In any case, Steve said, in 1971, a friend approached them one
day at school with a map of Marin County. "He said his
brother-in-law was in the Coast Guard and had planted a patch
of weed out on the Point Reyes Peninsula, but believed his
C.O. was onto him, and he didn't want to get busted. So he had
offered it to our friend, who was offering it to us."
The group agreed to meet that afternoon after school at 4:20
p.m. by a campus statue of Louis Pasteur, he said, and head
out to search for the marijuana patch. "But one thing led to
another," he laughed, "and suffice it to say we never found
it. Every day we'd meet at 4:20 by this statue, and every day
we'd just end up getting high and driving around for hours."
Over time, the mere phrase "four-twenty"--exchanged in a
hallway, or discreetly mentioned in the presence of teachers
and parents--became their personal code for "time to get
high," he said.
Steve and his friends went off to college--mostly at San Diego
State and Cal State San Luis Obispo--but their secret code
lived on in Marin County, preserved by younger brothers and
friends. "We have postmarked letters we wrote to each other
from the early '70s with all kinds of references to '420,' "
Steve said. Gradually, he said, the term was picked up by
local teenagers, and then by Deadheads, who are legion in
"By the mid-1990s," he said, "we started seeing it all over.
We couldn't believe it--it was on hats, T-shirts, record
labels, cleaning solutions, all over the Internet."
Intrigued, he said, he logged onto a High Times magazine Web
site, found the reference to the Grateful Dead flier, and
contacted Steven Hager, the magazine's editor-in-chief. Though
he did at one point do some research to find out whether the
term was trademarked (it is, by various entities for various
products), "We weren't looking for money," he said. "We never
got a penny, and that wasn't my goal--I already have a
successful business. But I e-mailed him anyway and said, 'This
is the story. It's not police code, it has nothing to do with
Hitler's birthday or chemical compounds, and I have the
postmarked letters to prove it. It was just a joke. Just a
joke! And now stoners have turned it into some kind of
High Times eventually did an article in late 1998 on the
friends, who stay in touch and still refer to themselves by
their old high school gang name, "the Waldos." But by then,
the term had taken on a life--and a lore--of its own.
Last year, when the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws took up the 420 banner--announcing that April
20 was "Stoner's New Year," that its national conference
would, from then on, be held on 4/20 and that 4:20 p.m. was to
pot smokers "what Miller Time has become to beer
drinkers--some legalization advocates predicted the exposure
would instantly kill the 420 phenomenon with uncoolness.
Instead, according to those who have capitalized on it, it has
merely followed the natural evolution of all that is trendy in
a capitalist market.
"Eighty million Americans have smoked marijuana at some point
in their lives, according to government figures. That's one
out of three people," noted NORML executive director Keith
Stroup, pointing to the same studies the government's Stern
used to note that two out of three people haven't used it.
"This idea of 420 being a 'secret code' is kind of funny, when
you think that a third of the population is in on the secret.
We're going to be selling tickets to our 420 party at $50 a
pop--that's how mainstream we think it is."