I should state right at the outset that I’m not a pot-smoker. Never tried marijuana in any form, actually, nor does the drug have any real appeal for me. Nevertheless, it was frequently invoked as an inside joke between my best friend Jack and I all through high school. We made thousands of ganja references, invented an elaborate song about several varieties of weed while in Hawaii with my family on vacation one year, built a lego car called the Rasmussen Machine that was covered with little green lego leafs that looked like cannabis, and would call my mom and youngest sister (around 9 or 10 years old at the time) every day at 4:20 to ask them what time it was–and then say “foooooooooouuur twennnnnnnnteeeeeeeeee,” cackle for a while and then hang up). After a while, even my mom started to like it, and every once in a while, Jack’s mom would come in in the early afternoon and say, “Steel–there’s a phone call for you.” I’d go in and pick up the phone and hear my mom’s voice. At first I’d be worried–why would she be calling me in the middle of the afternoon. And then she’d say “Steel, do you know what time it is?” I’d look at the clock, grin, and answer, “Awwwwww the Moms [I call her the Moms], it’s fooooooooouuuur twennnnnnnteeeee!” and we’d both laugh.
Yesterday was April 20th (4/20) and I got an unexpected call from one of my little sisters. I was with friends on the way to a basketball game, but I thought it might be an emergency, so I interrupted our conversation to take the call. She just wanted to tell me that it was 4/20. When I got home from the game, I checked my email. One of my best friends and fellow graduate of BYU, (the school that’s been ranked as #1 Stone Cold Sober university in the nation for the past 13 years), had emailed me to say “happy 4-20. i almost missed it!” That’s all he wrote. Together with my sister’s call and this post from a local Dominos pizza store I saw on the interwebs, it kind of made my day. Juvenile, perhaps–but still kind of funny, even though I am alleged to be roughly 28 years old and some kind of an adult.
I don’t know when I first heard about 4:20 as a pot smoking reference. As with most cultural legends or pervasive social myths, it’s hard to pinpoint a moment of origin or a time when you suddenly became initiated into a new state of knowledge or gained access to some previous obscure lore, unless it involves a moment of extreme embarrassment or humiliation (think of Smalls learning who Babe Ruth was in The Sandlot, for instance). Just as I’m unclear about when or how I became aware of 4:20 as the time of day that potheads around the world fired up their blunts to the sweet sounds of Peter Tosh, I was never exactly clear as to why 4:20 was pot smoking time, or why some of my peers seemed to be observing April 20th as a religious holiday by taking the day off from school. I heard many of the usual legends–that it was Hitler’s birthday (while true, I never understood how this was related to marijuana culture), that it was “tea time” in Britain–not true, and that it was police code for marijuana possession–which doesn’t make a ton of sense, since most states use different codes to refer to various infractions, since laws differ from state to state.
With this in mind, I was more than a little interested to hear this story on NPR several years ago. It’s well worth a listen–not only for its interesting account of the history of 4:20, but because it might quite possible be the most awkward four minute and 14 second conversation in the history of NPR (4:14? Really? Would it have been that hard to edit the piece to last 4 minutes and 20 seconds?), which is quite a feat in itself. Seriously, listen to it. A couple of years ago, I also saw this piece in the Huffington Post, which I think did quite a nice job tracking the origin and history of 4:20 as a social phenomenon and pretty widespread cultural reference.
So here’s the story: there were a bunch of kids called the Waldos in the 70s from San Rafael, California that used to gather after school at 4:20 to smoke pot. I remember reading somewhere that one of them had earned detention for himself for some reason and so they arranged to meet each other at 4:20 at a flagpole or a statue when he was released to smoke weed. Other stories say that it was a meeting time for them to go off in search of a rumored secret crop of marijuana growing nearby. Soon, the phrase was adopted into the Grateful Dead fan subculture, and from there it gradually gained more widespread recognition. Today it seems comfortably ensconced in common parlance, particularly among high school and college students. If you’re looking for a longer history of marijuana use (including, I believe, an account of the Waldos and the origins of 4:20), check out “Ratso” Sloman’s book Reefer Madness.
So, that’s the history of 4:20 in a nutshell. I think the most curious aspect of the spread of the phrase is how effective a relatively insignificant group of youth were able to coin and employ a phrase that has gradually become a cultural commonplace. I’d love to read a more detailed history of transmission and amplification, a kind of etymological and sociological history of the phrase that attempted to reconstruct the phrase’s growth in popularity, a kind of Google Trends map (notice the spikes each year on April 20th!) of the phrase that dated back before 2005, and had explanatory entries for each of the historical ebbs and flows of usage (not just search queries for the term).
As a final, more serious note, and this is perhaps something I’d like to touch on in greater detail in a future posts, I think that the United States’ current drug policy regarding marijuana possession is deeply distressing. NORML has a good interactive map with information about different state laws surrounding marijuana possession, but I think that the current trend towards decriminalization is probably a good one, on the whole. A couple of interesting articles on the topic, one from the Economist, and one from the Freakonomics blog do a nice job of summarizing several important viewpoints on the question. Here’s my take: I think in the majority of cases, we should think of nonviolent drug offenses, or nonviolent drug use, as a public health concerns and not a criminal concern. Drug abuse ought to be treated primarily as a medical (and in many cases psychological) problem, not a criminal one. Your thoughts, readers?