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What Does The Number 420 Signify, And Why?

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420 is a favorite number for a variety of reasons, but colloquially the number says pot -- "let's smoke pot", or "someone's smoking pot", or "gee, i really like pot", or "time to smoke pot". It is celebrated and noted by time (4:20 a.m. or p.m.), date (April 20th), or in any other instance (e.g. State Route 420). April 20th at 4:20 is marked by annual events in Mount Tamalpais, CA (an informal gathering); Marin Conty, CA (the 420 Hemp Fest); Ann Arbor, MI (the Hash Bash); and Washington, D.C. (buildup towards the July 4th Smoke-In).

Isn't it police code somewhere? No. The most common tale is that 420 is the police radio code or criminal code (and therefore the police "call") in certain part(s) of California (e.g. in Los Angeles or San Francisco) for having spotted someone consuming cannabis publicly, i.e. "pot smoking in progress"; that local cannabis users picked up on the code and began celebrating the number temporally (esp. 4:20 a.m., 4:20 p.m., and April 20); that the number became nationally popularized in the late 1980s and, more ferverently, in the early- to mid-1990s; and is colloquially applied to a variety of relaxed and/or inspired contexts, including not only pot consumption but also a "good time" more generally (in contrast to the drug war surrounding). And Chris Dolmetsch reported (1/8/03) that he "used to write for a local newspaper and I once toured the Hamilton, NJ police station for a story. While I was in the dispatch center, I glanced at their list of dispatch codes and there it was, plain as day: a 420, marijuana smoking. So I don't know how these guys determined that it's not a police code anywhere but it's not true." Most, however, insist that 420 is not police radio code for anything, anywhere. Checks of criminal codes (including those of the City of San Francisco, the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, the State of California, and the federal penal code) suggest that the origin is neither Californian nor federal (the two best guesses). For instance, California Penal Code 420 defines as a misdemeanor the hindrance of use ("obstructing entry") of public lands, and California Family Code 420 defines what constitutes a wedding ceremony (Marco). One state does come close: "The Illinois Department of Revenue classifies the Alcoholic Liquor Act under Part 420, and the Cannabis and Controlled Substances Tax Act are next, under Part 428." (RB 5/19/99)

He said, "Son, that's just the way it is." Some things will never change.
... But don't you believe them ~ Bruce Hornsby

There are a variety of explanations besides the most common and the most elaborate, all much more interesting than "police code", and many plausible.

  • Known Myths: It isn't police code. It isn't the number of chemicals in marijuana (315, not 420). And it isn't tea time in Amsterdam (that's 5:30). (Gerhard den Hollander).
  • Length of buzz: In a study reportedly conducted on the effects of cannabis, one of the conclusions was that the effects last for 4 hours and 20 seconds, with onset in the first ten minutes, "coming up" for 5-10 minus, a plateau for 15-30, "coming down" for 45-60 minutes, and "after effects" for 30-60 minutes, with this graphic summarizing the high: (Cole Smith)
  • Sixties Songs: For instance, Bob Dylan's famous "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" is a possible reference, or source -- 12x35=420. And Stephen Stills wrote (and Crosby Stills Nash & Young performed) a song "4+20" (first recorded 7/16/69, released on Deja Vu 3/11/70) about an 24-year-old poverty-stricken man who started and finished with nothing. (Thanks to Sherry Keel 12/6/98; and Matt Cantor, 2/12/03.) Dylan aslo mentions "4 and 20 windows" in "The Balland of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (on John Wesley Harding).
  • Older Verse: But 420 in poetry is older than that...
    • Greg Keller notes the old nursery rhyme line, "four and twenty black birds baked in a pie".
    • Revelation 5:14 (in the King James Version of the Christian Bible) reads, "And the four beasts said 'A-Men.' And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever." (Travis Spurley 2/15/99) Mark 4:20 (which was printed on t-shirts in the late 1980s) reads ""Others like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop - thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown." (Althea Toldme) See also, 420 in the Bible.
    • In Midnight's_Children, Salman Rushdie wrote, "Inevitably, a number of these children failed to survive. Malnutrition, disease and the misfortunes of everyday life had accounted for no less than four hundred and twenty of them by the time I became conscious of their existence; although it is possible to hypothesize that these deaths, too, had their purpose, since 420 has been, since time immemorial, the number associated with fraud, deception and trickery." (Comet 2/14/98) Comet's "best guess is that this refers to something in Indian mythology or numerology, since the book is set in India and frequently involves Indian history, culture, and religion. Given the high interest in Eastern religion among the phish/dead community, this seems a likely origin of 420's current significance."
  • Temporal Significance: "Hands on analog clock at 4:20 look like position of doobie dangling from mouth" "Larry in Tuscan" and Alex Mack 5/19/99). Disruptive students are out of detention and safetly away from school by 4:20, also rumored to be "the time that you should dose to be peaking when the Dead went on stage" Hart. "The Waldos" were a group of teens back in the 70's that lived in San Rafael, CA. 420 was the way they talked about pot in front of teachers, non-smoking family members etc. Also it was the time of day they could just go relax, and get baked." ("PhunkCellar") Jamaicans purportedly "worked till 4 then walked home then lit up. They would talk 420 like our parents talked about after 5. That's when partying began" "Larry in Tuscan"). Albert (not Abbie) Hofmann supposedly first encountered LSD at 4:20 p.m. on 4/19/1943 (Bart Coleman citing Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens, recommended by Mickey Hart in Planet Drum). Surrealist painter Miro was born April 20, 1893. And www.filmspeed.com says the propoganda film Reefer Madness has a copyright date of April 20, 1936 (i.e. 4/20). (PW)
  • Misc: Could be that it comes from hydroponics, the practice of cultivating plants in water often used by indoor marijuana cultivators, since 4 is used for H on a calculator (420/H20). (Nick Lowe 3/30/00) The number 80 (eight) is "quatre vingt" (pronounced "cah-truh vahn"), meaning "four (times} twenty". Dan Nijjar 1/27/00 (No connection yet between the number 80 and pot. A quarter pound is roughly 120 grams, rounding quarter-ounces to 7.5.) The titanic was supposed to arrive 4/20/1912. (Thanks to RB.) Perhaps the heavy use of vt420 terminals in the Berkeley area is to blame? (BTW, 420 in binary code is 110100100.)

True story? Well, it's at least the most elaborate..: "According to Steven Hager, editor of High Times, the term 420 originated at San Rafael High School, in 1971, among a group of about a dozen pot-smoking wiseacres who called themselves the Waldos. The term 420 was shorthand for the time of day the group would meet, at the campus statue of Louis Pasteur, to smoke pot. ``Waldo Steve,'' a member of the group who now owns a business in San Francisco, says the Waldos would salute each other in the school hallway and say ``420 Louis!'' The term was one of many invented by the group, but it was the one that caught on. ``It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like `Do you have any?' or `Do I look stoned?' '' he said. ``Parents and teachers wouldn't know what we were talking about.'' The term took root, and flourished, and spread beyond San Rafael with the assistance of the Grateful Dead and their dedicated cohort of pot-smoking fans. The Waldos decided to assert their claim to the history of the term after decades of watching it spread, mutate and be appropriated by commercial interests. The Waldos contacted Hager, and presented him with evidence of 420's history, primarily a collection of postmarked letters from the early '70s with lots of mention of 420. They also started a Web site, waldo420.com. ``We have proof, we were the first,'' Waldo Steve said. ``I mean, it's not like we wrote a book or invented anything. We just came up with a phrase. But it's kind of an honor that this emanated from San Rafael.''" Maria Alicia Gaura for the San Francisco Chronicle, 4/20/00 p. A19; and thanks to Noah Cole for the submission

Whatever the origin, the number appears frequently in Phish history...

420 Shows: Phish performed on April 20 in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994. The first day of the Great Went started at 4:20, although that was called a soundcheck by Trey after three songs. The Jazzfest Harry Hood 4-26-96 started at about 4:20 reported by Trevor. At Big Cypress, "David Bowie" was playing at 4:20 a.m. And the one event during the "hiatus" (10/8/00 - ?) featuring all four members - for Jason Colton's wedding - was 12/1/01, 420 days after the hiatus began. (Todd Pascoe)


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