The Real History of 4/20

What started as an after-school activity has turn into an annual societal phenomenon.

Young people pioneer movements, and 420 is another example of that. The term has transitioned from a code between high school students to a political agenda and a cultural holiday. We now recognize 4/20 as a day for those who enjoy marijuana to celebrate its existence by gathering to use it. But the roots are much more profound. 

In 1971, five students at San Rafael High School in California would meet at 4:20 p.m. daily to smoke. As an alternative to traditional afterschool activities, they used weed as their outlet to bond and become best ‘buds.’ Dave Reddix, one of the students in the crew, told TIME in 2017, “We got tired of the Friday-night football scene with all of the jocks.” Conventional sports or clubs weren’t cutting it for them. Therefore, an outlet more suitable for them was smoking, so much so that they challenged each other to find more creative things to do under the influence. They called those challenges “safaris.” Post graduation, Reddix worked with Grateful Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh where he introduced the term 420 to the star. The band ran with the word, and their fanbase started to use it. In 1990 a group of Deadheads in Oakland handed out flyers that invited people to smoke “420” on April 20 at 4:20 p.m. From there, the day spread like wildfire and publications credit that story to be the origin of 4/20. 

The day was initially used to fellowship with other marijuana lovers. Those in the community who were activists saw an opportunity to use the day to fight for the legalization of weed. As years have passed and marijuana usage has become legal in several states, activists now use the day to amplify their protest or applaud the states that have legalized it. 

For black and brown people, the push for legalizing marijuana is mainly rooted in decriminalizing the drug since Black adults are disproportionately arrested for marijuana-related offenses, according to FBI data. Black people accounted for 39% of all marijuana possession arrests in the U.S. despite being only 12% of the U.S. population. While, non-Hispanic, single-race Black and White Americans used marijuana at roughly comparable rates in 2020, according to Pew Research. Due to the pushback and protest of the people, Marijuana is now legal in over 20 states. 

As weed becomes more popular due to its legalization, 4/20 is now a cultural holiday. National food  brands continue to capitalize on it since the consumption of Cannabis can increase your appetite. Smashburger celebrated by selling four burgers for $20, Grubhub offered $4.20 off orders and Jimmy Johns provided up to 20% off meals. Those are only a few brands that embraced the progressive movement.  To the average marijuana user, the day is an opportunity to embrace social smoking, having national food brands participate emphasizes the change in  cultural acceptance of marijuana usage. 

Young adults are now pioneering movements that normalize the usage of Cannabis beyond recreationally. Two black women at the forefront of that movement are Zayna Allen and Ashely Zarrelli. They started the Rolling With series to destigmatize the use of Cannabis with creative professionals. When asked what 420 means, they had insightful answers about the artistic and medical benefits. Co-founder Allen responded, “4/20 means creativity. Through working with the series, we’ve learned how much of a positive effect cannabis has on creatives. Some of their best work comes from having sessions with colleagues and unlocking parts of their mind they haven’t unlocked before. Creativity is what fuels ingenuity.” Co-founder Zarrelli responded, “Cannabis settles my hyperactive ADHD mind, allowing me to function without anxiety while stimulating my creativity. So for me, 4/20 is a day to ignore stigmas, embrace the canna-community, and unapologetically celebrate the wonders of weed.” These ladies are advancing a narrative about healthily incorporating weed into work-life balance.

420 means something different to everyone. Some still consider it a code to have fun, others consider it a symbol of activism, and for others, it may not mean anything [nearly half of American adults have never tried marijuana, and 72% of those adults believe it has a negative effect on society]. Therefore, the ‘history’ of 420 is still being written, but it’s rooted in finding enjoyment in an activity ‘outside of the norm.’ 

Substance abuse is defined as ​​overindulgence in or dependence on an addictive substance. If you or someone you know is struggling with dependence on marijuana the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s hotline has a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year hotline. You can call them at 1-800-622- 4357. 

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