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What 420 Means in the Pot Smoking Culture

Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the Mentally Strong People podcast.

Doug Menuez / Photodisc / Getty Images

The term 420 is a word used to reference pot smoking. While the term was historically used as a “code” to designate someone’s activities or beliefs, such as “420 friendly,” most people are now aware of its association with marijuana.

Despite the popularity of the term, most people have no idea how or why 420 became associated with marijuana. There are a lot of myths and stories about its origins.

Known 420 Myths

There are many rumors floating around about why the term 420 is used. Here are some of the most popular myths:

Myth: Police dispatch code for smoking pot is 420.

The number 420 is not actually a police radio code for anything. Although it was widely suggested that 420 was associated with the California Penal Code, 420 refers to a law about public land.  

​Myth: There are approximately 420 active chemicals in marijuana.

There are actually more like 315 active chemicals in marijuana. This number goes up and down depending on the make-up of the marijuana.

Myth: April 20th is National Pot Smokers Day.

While some people believed April 20th is the day you should start growing your marijuana crop, others believed it was some sort of holiday. But neither is true. Instead, the term 420 led people to think April 20 was somehow associated with marijuana. The date doesn’t actually have any significance.

Myth: April 20th is Hitler’s birthday.

Although that was Hitler’s birth date, the term 420 referred to a time, not a date. And his birthday had nothing to do with it.

Myth: April 20th is the date of the Columbine school shootings.

Although the Columbine shooting occurred on April 20th, 1999, the term was already in place long before the incident.

The Origin Revealed

According to Steve Bloom, an editor at High Times magazine, the term 420 originated at San Rafael High School, in 1971.  

A group of about a dozen people who called themselves the Waldos met up to smoke marijuana at 4:20 every day. Rather than announce they were going to get high, they used to the code 420.

Apparently, the term spread. Over the years, its origins were lost but the “code” stuck.

What It Means to Today’s Teens

While the term 420 has been around for a long time, the internet hasn’t. And many of today’s teens are accessing pictures, games, and websites that glorify marijuana on a regular basis.

Of course, many teens have no idea that it’s an old phrase. So they use the slang term liberally in front of adults, thinking it’s a secret term developed by today’s drug subculture.

Thinking that it’s cool to smoke marijuana every day at 4:20, or assuming you have to participate in smoking on April 20th, can lead teens to join in.

Social media often glorifies drug use and it’s easier than ever for teens to get caught up in thinking “everyone is doing it.”  

The legalization of marijuana in some states, or the term “medical marijuana,” may lead teens to believe marijuana is safe to use.  

The term 420 has been around for a long time, but most people have no idea how it became associated with pot.