4/20: A holiday that’s hard to keep

For those of us who remember, 1971 was a year. Mount Etna erupted. Intel released the first microprocessor. The giant Aswan Dam was completed in Egypt. Charles Manson and three of his
followers received the death penalty.

On a lighter note, Walt Disney World Resort opened in Florida, the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers, and Zep first performed Stairway to Heaven. Starbucks, a small chain of coffee shops, brewed their first pot.

In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau married Margaret Sinclair, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, and Margaret Attwood published a book of poetry.

According to popular lore, 1971 was also a milestone in recent cannabis history, the start of a movement to celebrate all things cannabis on “4/20” — the 20 th of April.

With the nationwide legalization of cannabis on October 17, 2018 after Royal Assent of The Cannabis Act, 2021 marks the third year of legal 4/20 celebrations in Canada.

So where did “4/20” come from? The story below sounds like folklore, but it’s true. Probably.

In the fall of 1971, five stoner high school students in San Rafael, California, were looking for an abandoned cannabis crop. One of them had a crude map drawn by the cultivator.

Calling themselves the “Waldos”, the group designated 4:20 pm as their meeting time, when they would meet by a statue and head out looking for the crop. Keep in mind, there were stiff penalties for possessing even small quantities of the plant. In some places this is still the case.

By late afternoon, the story goes, most school activities were over, and it was relatively safe to smoke.

The phrase “4:20” evolved into a code-word the teens used to refer to smoking cannabis. A writer for High Times popularized the story of “4:20,” and later, in 1991, he called for an informal “4/20” holiday.

The story was that the phrase started to spread after one of the Waldos became a roadie for Phil Lesh, bassist of the Grateful Dead, who were stoner icons. Word got out that 4:20 pm – late afternoon – was the socially accepted time of the day to consume cannabis.

In time, April 20 became an international counterculture holiday, where people gather to smoke and celebrate. Many of the events serve to advocate the liberalization/legalization of cannabis.

“Millions of dollars have been made over the years exploiting the number, from T-shirts and hats to cannabis businesses with 420 in their names,” wrote Paul Elias, of the Associated Press. “Hotels and tour companies advertise themselves as ‘420 friendly’ and dating sites contain listings for people ‘420 compatible.’ Though dozens of 420-related trademarks have been issued to various companies, The Waldos hold none.”

“In the 1970s, 4/20 was part of a smaller counterculture movement that embraced marijuana as a symbol to protest against broader systemic problems in the US, like overseas wars and the power of corporations in America,” German Lopez wrote in VOX.

“Marijuana was the way you said you weren’t a suit,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, told Lopez.

While the events were originally a protest, at least in part, against the social and legal stigmas against marijuana, legalization undercuts that purpose, wrote Lopez. “As big businesses and corporations begin to grow, sell, and market pot, marijuana is losing its status as a counterculture symbol — and that, Humphreys speculated, could bring the end of the traditional, countercultural 4/20.”

“If a corporate marijuana industry adopts 4/20, it would still be a celebrated event, but not with the same countercultural meaning,” Humphreys said. “People celebrated Christmas long before it became an occasion for an orgy of gift-buying and materialist consumption, but the meaning of the holiday for most people was different then than it is now.”

This year, social distancing and other Covid mitigation measures will severely curtail the 4/20 festivities.

Incidentally, the Waldos never did find the missing crop.

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