The Current

Where does 420 come from? Meet the men who coined the phrase and lit up a movement

As Canada drifts toward marijuana legislation, April 20 may appear to be losing its relevance as a day of protest. But the men who say they coined '420' disagree.

Phrase has been attributed to everything from a police code to Hitler's birthday

People around the world will be taking part in 420 events today, in the annual protest day for pot that falls on April 20. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Read Story Transcript

You've probably heard the code "420" bandied about as a shorthand term for pot.

Over the years, urban legends about the number's origin have sprouted, with associations ranging from San Francisco's police code to Adolf Hitler's birthday.

But the men who coined the phrase say the true origin lies in a teenage treasure hunt.

Steve Capper and Dave Reddix are members of the 420 Waldos, a group of high school friends and self-professed marijuana enthusiasts. The phrase they coined eventually became the name of the protest day for pot, which falls on April 20.

As 16-year-old boys with nothing but "girls, weed and rock and roll" on their minds, they were offered a treasure trove — a plot of pot.

The owners, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, were trying to dispose of it before their bosses found out, Capper said, and told the Waldos it was theirs for the picking.

They drew them a map, and the boys, predictably, jumped at the chance.

They decided to meet after school, at 4 p.m., at the statue of Louis Pasteur on campus. But some of the boys had after-school activities, so the time was changed to 4:20 p.m.

They didn't find anything on the first day, so they tried again … and again. Soon, they were passing each other in the hallway saying "see you at 4.20, Louie."

Eventually, they dropped the Louie, and 420 was born.

"We didn't find the weed, but we continued to use 420 as our secret code for talking about marijuana," Capper told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"We could use this in front of our parents, cops, teachers," Reddix said, "and nobody knew what we were talking about."

If you're taking part in 420 events today, the Waldos said, make sure you have fun — and clean up your trash. (David Horemans/CBC)

Now, as Canada drifts toward marijuana legislation, April 20 may appear to be losing its relevance as a day of protest.

"Certainly not," countered Capper, who argued it's still a fun day for people to enjoy.

The Waldos have advice for anyone planning on taking part in 420 today.

"If you're going to a public event, where there's lots of people and you're bringing stuff. We encourage you all to be kind to each other and have fun," Capper said. "But please pick up your mess when you leave."

Reddix adds: "If you're over 50, be sure to ask your doctor if 420 is right for you."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, which includes a conversation with Andrew Potter, a professor at McGill University, about why 420 still matters. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Geoff Turner, Jessica Linzey, Exan Auyoung and Ines Colabrese.


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