The Origins of Cannabis in America

A man wearing a suit and a straw hat standing amongst hemp plants in a field. Wisconsin, 1912

A man wearing a suit and a straw hat standing amongst hemp plants in a field. Wisconsin, 1912 (Source)

While cannabis use in humans dates back at least 12,000 years in ancient China, it didn’t make its way into the United States for recreational use until the early 1900s. During the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution, immigrants began to bring the plant over the border and soon introduced the recreational practice of smoking weed to American culture. Shortly after, history would take a turn for the worse as the Great Depression struck. This led to massive unemployment mixed with social unrest, which stoked the resentment of Mexican immigrants and the public fear of “evil weed”. Thus, weed was outlawed in 29 states by 1931.

The annual collection of cannabis seized by the New York Police Department Narcotics Bureau during the year 1924

The annual collection of cannabis seized by the New York Police Department Narcotics Bureau during the year 1924 (Source)

From there came the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was the first U.S. law to criminalize cannabis nationwide. Then, less than 40 years later, we faced the “War on Drugs”. It was at this point in history that the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was signed into effect. This meant cannabis was now a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Despite this, Americans were still smoking cannabis and the culture only continued to grow.

Legalization of Cannabis in America Timeline

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Later, 1996 comes around and California put the Compassionate Use Act into effect. This meant California was the first state to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, but it was only to be used by people with severe or chronic illnesses. Finally, as of June 2019, recreational cannabis is legal in Washington D.C, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Vermont, and Oregon.

The Origins of the Phrase 420

The Waldos

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For many, the history of 420 is shrouded in mystery. Some say it refers to the number of chemical compounds in cannabis, some say it’s the police code for cannabis, and some even believe it’s tied to Adolf Hitler’s birthday. However, non of these are correct. 420’s true origins can be traced back to San Rafael, California. In the fall of 1971, a group of teenagers who referred to themselves as “The Waldos” came into possession of a treasure map. What was the treasure? According to legend, this map lead to a Coast Guard’s personal cannabis plants that he could no longer care for.

"420" Louis Pasteur Statue in San Rafael California

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The teens would meet that the Louis Pasteur statue outside their high school at least once a week and conduct a search for the abandoned cannabis plants. Because of their after-school athletics, the teens would meet at 4:20pm, right after practice. Upon meeting up, they would smoke some pot and set out in search of the elusive free weed plants. They originally called these meet-ups “420-Louis” in reference to their meeting time and spot, but eventually, the “Louis” was dropped. Thus, 420 was born. (Source)

The Popularization of the Phrase 420

The Grateful Dead at Red Rocks 1978

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So, how did 5 nobody teenagers end up coining one of the most popular phrases in cannabis history? It turns out the Waldos had many connections to the all-famous band The Grateful Dead. One of the Waldos, Mark Gravitch, was the son of The Grateful Dead’s real estate manager. On top of this, another Waldo named David Reddix’s older brother knew The Grateful Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh. As such, the Waldos were often seen backstage at Grateful Dead concerts using their 420 slang when smoking cannabis.

Wake N' Bake Original 420 Flyer

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As a result, 420 began to ring in the ears of fellow Dead Heads and soon everyone in the Grateful Dead community knew the phrase. But, it wasn’t until “High Times” reporter Steven Bloom attended a Grateful during the week of Christmas in 1990 that the phrase began to spread like wildfire. According to Bloom, a Deadhead handed him a flyer that read “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt.Tamalpais.” Bloom shared this flyer with High Time along with Huffington Post. Once those papers were printed, 420 became a global phenomenon.

Original 420 Waldo's Letter

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So, how do we know this story is true? Well, The Waldos actually have proof to back up their story. In a San Francisco vault, they have their original 420 tie-dyed flag along with letters filled with 420 references and even a newspaper clipping stating that one of the members wanted to simply say “420” for his graduation speech. (Source)

So, now that you know the real history behind 420, go tell your friends and celebrate in honor of The Waldo’s!

Celebrate 420 at Cinder!

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This product has intoxicating effects and may be habit-forming. Which is to say, cannabis can impair concentration, coordination, and judgment. Therefore, do not operate a vehicle or machinery under the influence of this drug. Furthermore, there may be health risks associated with consumption of this product. For use only by adults twenty-one and older. To sum up, keep out of the reach of children.