The True Meaning of “420” for the Cannabis Industry

By Elizabeth Michael

Every April 20, cannabis enthusiasts worldwide unite in celebrating the plant, but the true meaning of “420” is clouded in mystery. Some report 420 refers to the number of plant molecules; or believe it has a reference to Hitler’s birthday; or it’s the date of Bob Marley’s or Jimi Hendrix’s death (neither died on that day). It is most often reported to be the police code for smoking marijuana in progress. None are true and the origins of the term “four twenty” are much more humble – and simple.

In fact, the term was coined by a group of teens called the “Waldos” in the 1970s on their quest to find an abandoned plot of cannabis in California’s Point Reyes Forest. They continued to use the term as a subtle cue to smoke with friends. Eventually, the Waldos introduced the term to the Grateful Dead’s subculture of the Deadheads. High Times took the term international by referencing the term in events and other pieces of content. It’s a true cultural phenomenon by the Waldos and they haven’t made a dime. But, plenty do today.

While the phrase’s origins are modest, its economic impact on the cannabis industry is great. In 2019, the legal cannabis industry pulled in $90 million on April 20 – its biggest day of the year. The second biggest day, April 19, was 50 percent lower, according to BDSA.  Bud Agency caught up with cannabis industry experts on the heels of this year’s 420 to get an idea of what 420 means to them:

“For our Steep Hill team, 4/20 has a special meaning for us. It was just about a year ago that we began accepting our first cannabis samples from Arkansas growers. We had just gone through our ISO accreditation inspection, which was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and had gotten our approval from the Department of Health to officially test cannabis. Getting through the ISO process and actually testing cannabis was a huge milestone for our team. We treat 4/20 as our anniversary and celebrate being able to work in this industry. Also, the first payment we received as a business from a customer was $420! I’ve got a copy of the check framed on my office wall.

Personally, every 4/20 I think about just how mainstream this unofficial holiday has become. Even my mom knows what 4/20 stands for. To me, that means the negative attitudes of the past are going away and more people are accepting of cannabis as medicine.”


“The progression of the 420 holiday is a powerful one. Like the industry as a whole, 420 has moved from a shadowy celebration into a full-blown consumer tradition. Personally, 420 always acts as a bit of a measuring stick, demonstrating how far we have come in the fight for legalization – Netflix aired a show about cooking with cannabis during 420 week – and how much work we have yet to do to ensure access for all Americans.”


“I’ve always heard it was the time that some high school students would get together and smoke after school. (Wikipedia said it was a code word for meeting up to smoke cannabis). Personally, for the date, it’s become the ‘cannabis holiday.’ I usually gather with friends and hang out for the day and smoke to celebrate. Working in cannabis retail, of course, I work on that day, but I find the time to still enjoy. I see it now more than ever as a celebration because it’s legal in some way in most states. I think it’s pretty cool that we’ve created this day to celebrate!”


“420 is a symbol to disconnect from your daily grind. A reminder that we should be focused purely on what is happening, what I need to do … but relax. Separate from your current stress, enjoy your favorite plant by yourself and, even better, with friends. You have to disconnect to reconnect.”


“In recent years, April 20 (or 4/20) has become an important date for cannabis advocacy and organizing, and also an important date to reflect upon and celebrate the success we’ve had to date in reversing decades of ill-conceived cannabis prohibition.  For states with legal cannabis programs, both medical and adult-use, the date is one of the most significant sales events of the year, and is an important benchmark for retailers and producers alike.  In states that don’t yet have legal cannabis, however, 4/20 is also a reminder that there is still work to be done.”


“When I was deployed in Afghanistan, I used to look at my watch and think, ‘Huh, it’s 4:20,’ and think about how I couldn’t wait to be back in America to be a regular guy again. I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world to get to work in an industry I am passionate about.”


“It’s real easy for me … it’s my birthday!”


About the Author: Elizabeth Michael

Share This Project With Other Creatives