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19 april 2021

Are you familiar with 420?

If you’re a fan, it’s likely that you will be familiar with the number 420 (pronounced “four twenty”) and by extension the date April 20th, which in the US calendar is written 4/20. But why is this the universally known number for cannabis users?

Many theories have manifold: It’s Bob Marley’s birthday (no); it’s police code for cannabis smoking in progress (no); it’s from Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & #35’, which contains the line ‘everybody must get stoned’, because 12 x 35 = 420 (a strange coincidence, but – no); it’s the number of chemical compounds in cannabis (no, but since we’re still discovering cannabinoids, who knows…); it’s tea-time in the Netherlands (that’s not even a thing. No). So where did the 420 tradition come from?

Origins of 420

In fact, 420 originated in 1971 when a group of school friends in San Rafael, California, set out to find an abandoned guerrilla grow. Their meeting plan – after class at 16:20 by a statue of Louis Pasteur – gave them the shorthand “420 Louis”. As the hunt continued day after day, they dropped the “Louis”, and depending on context and inflection, “420” became a linguistic multi-tool for anything cannabis-related. The Waldos, as the group called themselves in reference to a wall they liked to sit on, never found the crop; this (and their name) may well have been due to the prolific cannabis smoking that accompanied their searches.

The term spread amongst another, far larger group, also noted for enthusiastic cannabis use: Deadheads. A family connection with The Grateful Dead via one of the Waldos meant the new slang disseminated through the band and their fans, who had a tradition of congregating in venue car parks before concerts. It was during one of these gatherings that a Deadhead passed a flyer referencing 420 to a reporter of the US cannabis magazine HighTimes, Steve Bloom.

In 1991, High Times printed the flyer. Editor Steve Hagar leapt onto the 420 bandwagon and began using the number whenever possible; holding meetings, planning Cannabis Cup ceremony events, and presumably unfailingly getting high, at 16:20. He still takes credit for making it “an international phenomenon”, despite the phrase having been in use by an extensive, worldwide, dedicated fanbase for twenty years by the time he came across it. Bloom is less proprietary: “We posted that flyer 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.”

420 goes mainstream

By the turn of the century, 420 events on April 20th were already popular and widely accepted as an international day to celebrate cannabis, and to create awareness against its illegal status. However, they have been partially usurped, partially co-opted by another major cannabis event – the Million Marijuana March. Beginning in 1992, this far more global and far more organized protest event has been held in over 800 cities by 72 different nations. They are usually held on the first Saturday in May, and that might have something to do with the fact that most 4/20ies fall on a weekday.  2016 sees the first exception to this. Various participating countries (see list below) are holding the march on April 20th this year to coincide with the appropriately-timed UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS). For the first time since 1998 the United Nations will focus on the problems associated with the War On Drugs, many of which were caused by their previous stance of “total elimination of drugs from the world”

It is interesting that this Assembly is being held on April 19th, 20th, and 21st. It seems highly unlikely that the choice of dates was a deliberate nod to drug culture! However, in the decades since the phrase was only used amongst the Waldos, it has slowly but surely crept into the mainstream. According to the Huffington Post, “In 2003, when the California legislature codified the medical marijuana law voters had approved, the bill was named SB420. “We think it was a staffer working for [lead Assembly sponsor Mark] Leno, but no one has ever fessed up,” says Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbied on behalf of the bill. California legislative staffers spoken to for this story say that the 420 designation remains a mystery…”

As cannabis use itself becomes more mainstream, so does 420. It makes various screen appearances. Some (but not all, as popular myth has it) of the clocks in Pulp Fiction are set to 04:20. The football scoreboard in Fast Times at Ridgemont High reads 42 – 0. An episode of Family Guy dealing with cannabis use is titled “420”. There is a band called 420, albums and playlists entitled 420, and even a rather charming booklet called ‘The 420 Code’, which seems to be a Tao of Stoners.

420 in Amsterdam

Once the so called “420 culture” reached the shores of the Netherlands, Amsterdam was majorly influenced by it. If we look back at the city in the 60s, a new subculture sprouted around the use of Hash. In 1970, a cannabis activist named Koos Zwart Announced the winners of the cannabis prize.  As weed was permitted since as early as 1976, (wich was rare in it’s days) Amsterdam came to be a city to express and relax. It was the perfect place for old school smokers and newborn “420” stoners to unite and experience a holiday like never before. Coffeeshops became widespread and shops for rolling supplies, merchandise and weed clothing increased, named by the dutch the fitting term of: “tourist shop”, but more properly revered to as: “Gift & Specialty shop”. Business shifted and tourism became the biggest driving force of the dutch capital. 420 and weed were partly responsible for it’s popularity.
Nowadays Amsterdam tries to shrink it’s tourism, as it was causing problems with the cities habitants and house market. Locals moved out of the centre as tourism increased. 420 didn’t cause this, but it’s evident that it made it’s mark. New rules are being implemented, like tobacco bans in coffeeshops and a possible weed pas, so people with a different nationality than Dutch can’t buy any THC related products.

420 contained within walls

This 420 will be different from the ones we used to enjoy. Like last year, 420 takes place in a time of crisis, with the impact of wich still felt deeply. People now have to think of creative solutions to celebrate their favorite time of year. Combined with some nice food, maybe a fitting type of music to enhance the celebration and bam, bob’s your uncle, you have yourselves a fine 420.

Normally people would watch Cheech and Chong, How High, Pineapple Express and others of the like.
We would advise to take a look at our movie list, produced by your best friends. Believe me, watching the trailers alone would be worth it.

  • Shoa-Lin Soccer
  • Nacho Libre
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • Spaceballs
  • Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Six String Samurai
  • Enthiran

Normally we would gather in parks with a boatload of high folks, but this time will be smaller and more intimate. Whip out those dusty boardgames and re-experience them. Boot up some party games on the pc or console (Overcooked hint hint), or just play the old card game. I think we know that our 420 will always be great. Hopefully your 420 will be special!

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