The True Origin Story of ‘420’ – Told by the Creators Themselves
As cities across the world cancel 420 events because of the coronavirus outbreak, the high school friends who invented the term in the early 70s say we can still have fun and get high together online on 4/20/2020 – even if we can’t pass joints to each other (for now)
Like many a stoner tall tale, it started with a quest for weed. But in a classic coming-of-age twist, there was a treasure map and a rumor of a hidden fortune, a big body sedan full of five friends up to no good, and danger and adventure around every turn.
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But unlike those tall tales and pothead urban legends, this story is true, and the failed quest at its core changed the marijuana counterculture forever.
Fast-forward about 50 years, and those five friends are still close, and still can’t believe their secret code word — “420” — became universal stoner slang, a global rallying cry for “let’s get high.”
“We didn’t know we were creating a secret code. We were just having some fun with each other,” Dave Reddix told International Highlife in a phone interview earlier this month.
“We didn’t just sit around getting high on a couch; there was always a mission to complete. Creating new missions, it was a goal to figure out weird, strange original things to do,” his partner in crime Steve Capper added during the conference call from the Bay Area.
Capper and Reddix were students at San Rafael High School in Marin County, California, in the early 70s. They and three fellow students (and accomplices) — Mark Gravitch, Larry Schwartz, and Jeffrey Noel — made up a gang of merry pranksters that called themselves “the Waldos” in reference to the wall on campus where they’d meet up and watch the world go by, cracking jokes and doing impressions.
So where did 420 come from?
But what about 420? As Steve tells it, one day in 1971, they were at the wall when a friend of Steve came up and told him about his brother-in-law, who was serving in the Coast Guard at the nearby Point Reyes Peninsula, where he and some fellow servicemen were secretly growing weed. They apparently got word that their commanding officer was on to them, so they decided to abandon the weed patch. The brother-in-law then drew up an actual treasure map to lead those lucky stoners to this marijuana Coronado on the shores of the Pacific.
“You’re 16 years old, you have no money, you have no weed, it’s a no-brainer,” Reddix said.
He added that the gang then hatched a plot to meet at 4:20 pm at the statue of Louis Pasteur on the campus of San Rafael High for the first attempt to find the pot of gold. It became a regular (if fruitless) endeavor, and an inside joke between the friends, who would pass each other in the hallway, nod, and say “4:20 Louie.”
Eventually, they dropped the Louie, and “4:20” became the code word for another rendezvous, another safari for the boys in the Impala.
“420” remained an inside joke with the friends, and it featured in their correspondence in the coming years as they split up and set off to start their adult lives. It might have stayed that way too if it wasn’t for Reddix’s brother Patrick who was working with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh on one of his side projects in the mid-70s. Patrick and Phil hired Dave to be a roadie, and over the course of those nights spent backstage smoking weed with Lesh and fellow travelers like David Crosby, the term “420” cut through the fog as the joints circled. From there, it made its way through the wider community of deadheads and stoners, and the rest is history.
It’s not just a story, there’s proof
This is how the Waldos created 420 — and they’ve got the receipts to prove it. Not only that, but much of the physical evidence — including a letter from a friend of Steve in the 70s, complaining that there’s “no 420 here” on the kibbutz in Israel where he was volunteering — is locked away in a safe deposit box at a Wells Fargo Bank Branch at 420 Montgomery Street in San Francisco (yes that’s the actual address).
Today, Steve Capper works in the financial services industry, and Dave Reddix is an independent filmmaker and a former CNN cameraman. They’re the spokespersons of sorts for the Waldos, handling the interview requests that come in most years in early Spring, as 4/20 approaches on the horizon.
This year though, things are set to be quite different, to put it lightly. The coronavirus outbreak and the lockdowns that have been implemented to flatten the curve have led to the cancellation of this year’s 420 events in cities across the globe. With social distancing upending human interaction these past few weeks, many stoners have found themselves grappling with the question — can we ever share joints again? And also, how do we get high together if we can’t be together at all?
“It probably wasn’t going to be that big on a Monday anyway. But you know people are going to get online and get high and smoke out for 420, we’ll all know everybody is lighting up at the same time, so there’ll still be some community and solidarity anyway,” Capper says.
“I think we can get together with social distancing, but it’ll be hard to pass a joint,” Reddix adds, smiling into the webcam.
They added that the Waldos had a few in-person interviews scheduled with news crews, but all have been canceled due to the outbreak.
Being a stoner in the ’70s was dangerous
It’s hard to talk about the creation of 420 without bringing up just what it was like to be a teenage pothead back in those halcyon days of stonerdom when scoring weed meant really risking your neck. The contrast to today couldn’t be more stark — especially considering that all of the Waldos live in a state where today, walking into a store and buying an entire smorgasbord of premium marijuana products is as easy as going to a Starbucks.
“When we were in high school, you could go to prison for ten years for a joint man. Smoking, transporting, selling, buying, hiding, you were always like, underground trying to score and trying to get high and hang out with our friends who were heads like us but it was totally different then,” Reddix said, adding that he and the Waldos “were like desperado underground cowboys.”
“The air was constantly charged with danger; lookouts were needed because at any sudden moment, you could be running from the authorities and using your wits to outsmart everybody,” Capper says.
He added that “everything was more fun back then” and that “every single time we successfully evaded or wittingly escaped the law, the bonds of our brotherhood grew stronger.”
Desperados or not, the Waldos were also good kids who played sports and did well in school, and they really had no desire to get in trouble anyway, both alumni made a point of noting. After all, if they were skipping school, they wouldn’t have had to wait until 4:20 to begin their safaris.
Is 420 2020 any different?
What hasn’t changed, though, is that the Waldos are all still friends and still love getting together, even if smoking weed isn’t so central to the relationship anymore.
“Some of us still do; it’s not an everyday thing like it was back then. Every once in a while, we’ll partake,” Reddix said.
And while the Waldos have met celebrities and even dabbled in the legal marijuana business themselves, that’s not what it’s all about.
“We don’t really care about fame, that’s all a bunch of bullshit. We’re still close friends if we can have any opportunities to hang out and get together, we always crack each other up. So it’s just about our long term friendship, our bond as friends, that’s the most important thing,” Capper says.
And this year, as the coronavirus rages? The message hasn’t changed.
“Our main message for everybody on 420 is really to show some compassion to your fellow humans, be kind, have some fun, and maybe stay your distance but have some fun and be careful,” Reddix says with a smile.