The History of 420 in 3 Acts

Waldos on the wall.

You can trace a line from Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady to Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs to Steve and Dave, who entered San Rafael High School in the late sixties. They were rugged individualists uninspired by the social scene, which centered on athletics and the school’s top jocks, so they decided to create their own fun by embarking on a quest for adventure. The first of these was a visit to a Bay Area research lab developing the very first holographs. Soon, Jeff, Larry and Mark joined the safaris, as these adventures became known.

Every safari started with a sacramental hit of cannabis, followed by the cranking of the tunes, either in the 1966 4-door Chevy Impala with the killer Craig 8-track stereo system, or in Steve’s room, or in one of other sacred spots they shared herb, as getting high was illegal and couldn’t be done in public or around parents. One of their favorite spots was underneath the statue of Louis Pasteur by Benny Bufano, which overlooked the school parking lot. Sacred hymns provided by New Riders of the Purple Sage, Allman Brothers, Poco, Commander Cody, Beatles, The Moonlighters were then employed to lift the vibration higher.

Waldos at the statue of Louis Pasteur.

This crew gravitated to a wall inside the courtyard of San Rafael High, where they’d meet before class and during lunch break to make withering comments about everything around them, and this is where they obtained their name: The Waldos, as well as where they honed their savage wit. You couldn’t smoke pot around school unless it was a one-hitter and done extremely carefully, and even then you risked suspension and your parent’s wrath.

In the fall of 1971 Steve was given a treasure map to an abandoned patch of cannabis on Point Reyes that had been planted by a member of the Coast Guard too scared to return. He wanted some fellow stoners to have the patch, and everybody at San Rafael knew the Waldos were frequent stoners.

“Surely, this is the ultimate safari,” thought Steve. “No more adventurous nor noble quest could be devised by the mind of man.” The Waldos prophetically all agreed to meet at 4:20 PM at the Louis Pasteur Statue to get high, and drive out to Point Reyes to search for the secret patch of weed.  From then on, whenever the Waldos passed each other in the halls, they spontaneously erupted in a salute with the words, “Four Twenty, Louie!” Little did they know how far this ritual would eventually travel, although “Louie” got lost along the way.

For the next ten years, the Waldos went on the most amazing safaris and had the most magical adventures, although they sadly never found that patch. But they always sponsored a big pot party on April 20th, where a ceremonial toke would take place at 4:20 PM. Eventually they started getting married, having families and picking up the sacred pipe less frequently. However, they kept up the safaris.

But soon after the Waldos retired from 420 ceremonies, younger classmen of San Rafael picked up on the magic of numerology and began using the code as a way to evade detection, and some of them started a ritual of congregating on a ridge of Mount Tamalpias with a sunset view of the Pacific on April 20th in order to get high at exactly 4:20 PM as a way to honor the spirit of cannabis. This ritual started with only a few souls, but soon grew to dozens. And that’s when someone got the idea of making a flyer inviting all stoners to the ceremony. Nobody outside Marin even knew that 420 signified pot. But even those gathered at the top of Mt. Tam didn’t have any idea how the code had started. They thought it had something to do with the police.

I’m often knee-deep before I realize what I stepped into, and that’s how it was with the Cannabis Cup. The idea came to me on the plane, while flying back from the Netherlands after interviewing the founder of the first marijuana seed company, Nevil Shoemakers. The night before, Dave Watson had regaled me with tales of California harvest festivals before C.A.M.P. helicopters forced that scene underground.

Soon, I was back in the Netherlands, organizing the first Cannabis Cup, with a photographer and grow expert. Three seed companies entered, and one of them didn’t even cure their entries but plucked them fresh off the vine.

But when I returned home after that first event, I couldn’t shake a feeling of responsibility. My event demanded a ceremonial framework respecting the true spirit of cannabis and its historical importance and influence.  And that’s how I ended up buying a paperback version of the Rig Veda.

Imagine my surprise when I came across the description of the primary sacrament shared during all ceremonies, a drink called Soma:
“The blind see, the lame walk… he clothes the naked. Soma is a sage and seer inspired by poetry …King of the healing plants.”

I knew Soma was supposed to be a mushroom, something accepted as gospel by the academic community, but in my heart, I instantly realized this had to be a description of cannabis, and there had to be some incredible cover-up going on that dwarfed the cover-up Jack Herer was pushing about the industrial uses and environmental benefits of hemp.

I stepped out of my office to smoke a joint and reflect on these matters, something I had been doing in my office, but had recently departed, as I had moved to a former warehouse in the back of the building, something necessitated by a crackdown on smoking in the front offices. But the crackdown had just been extended to my refuge in the former warehouse, so I was forced into the stairwell.

The recently appointed news editor was there, along with a member of the Cannabis Action Network from the Bay Area who was dropping off a flyer. There was also some hippie dude I didn’t know who proceeded to pull out a stash of whippets and he began inhaling them in rapid succession. The news editor asked when he was going to share, and he said, “Sorry, I only have my dose and nothing more.”

I fired my joint, while the dude from CAN showed me a flyer that had been circulated at a Grateful Dead show in Oakland. “Check this out,” he said. “It’s really silly.”

Pythagoreans greet the sunrise.

I don’t have immense satori moments often, but I’d been time traveling through the Vedas for hours and still had a foot in distant past, so when I saw that crude flyer asking people to come to the sunset-view ridge of Mt. Tam at 4:20 PM on April 20th, it assumed Biblical proportions in my mind, and I expressed these feelings instantly, because this was surely a sign, and something that could be employed to give deeper meaning to my Cannabis Cup ceremony. But for those not into numerology or the study of secret societies, this sort of thinking is silliness with no meaning. Some people “got” 420 and used the magic to enhance their experience and legitimize pot in ceremony, while for others, it remained a funny excuse to light up and nothing more.

I told my staff that day I intended to use the code to build a case for spiritual rights under the Constitution. “This ceremony manifested spontaneously, and is evidence of the power of cannabis to create ceremony and culture,” I said. “We’re going to make this a big part of the Cannabis Cup and the Freedom Fighters.”

Later on, I was crushed to discover the news editor had run a joke item about the flyer, failing to even mention my pledge to deploy the code as a fulcrum for legalization. No matter, John Holmstrom, editor of the Hemp 100 page knew exactly what I was doing and from that day a mention of 420 was on every Hemp 100, and that page had a fanatical following.

Certainly Chef RA, Jack Herer, Rodger Belknap, Thom Harris, and Linda Noel “got” 420. They were the shock troops in the hemp legalization movement, who helped me found the Freedom Fighters, the first national hemp legalization group. For many years we drove to rallies in a magic bus (a new one each year as they were always breaking down). We hosted free campgrounds, with free kitchens, and published a free newsletter. Back then, the rallies were all held at precisely high noon, a trend that would continue for well over a decade. But the Freedom Fighters always held council at 4:20 PM, passed a feather and plotted how to best legalize in our lifetime. Just as every year, one of the Freedom Fighters was selected by open council to attend the Cannabis Cup as a celebrity judge.

I hadn’t been to any Cups since the first one. But in 1993, I held the first 420 council at a Cannabis Cup. In truth, it was a clumsy ceremony, as no one but me had any idea what 420 represented, including Jack Herer. Some people will claim 420 was already widespread within the Grateful Dead community in the 1980s, but that is not true. It was known to teenagers who lived in Marin County in the later part of the decade and was on the way out when High Times began promoting it.

At the 7th Cup, the 420 ceremony blossomed and became epic and stayed that way for the next 15 years or at least until High Times booted me out of the event. Most of the chiefs of cannabis in Amsterdam attended that 420 ceremony and spoke from their hearts. Eagle Bill was a major force elevating those ceremonies and it could not have happened like it did without him. I ran into Bill on my way to open the Pax Party House on opening day, and noticed he carried a hand-carved staff. I asked if he would like to be the ceremonial high priest and use his staff in place of a feather. The impact of this request on Eagle Bill was profound. To say Eagle Bill “got” 420 would be a vast understatement, as he rapidly elevated to become the primary guiding spirit of the event.

I was arranging everything around the afternoon 420, but the crew got so devoted they began doing 420 AM ceremonies, and these rapidly became the most legendary parties at the Cup, held in the Quentin lobby after the awards show. Everyone collected mass selfies under a clock at exactly 4:20.

In 1995, Vancouver got credit for staging the first April 20th 420 ceremony outside Marin County. Marc Emery, Dana Rozek, Cindy Lassu and Ian Hunter had a hand in manifesting this event, although Marc was initially opposed to the concept. It continues today as the longest-running April 20th ceremony in North America.

In 1998 I staged the first New York City 420 celebration on April 20th at Wetlands featuring The Cannabis Cup Band. In later years, the band held an April 20th celebration on board a boat that traveled around Manhattan island. (I wouldn’t stage another public 420 event on April 20th until 2017, when the Temple Dragon Band did a free performance in Tomkins Square Park in the East Village.)

In 1999, Debby Goldsberry staged the first major 420 event in the Bay Area in Golden Gate Park, although it turned into a one-off. However, the already established free 420 gathering on hippie hill continues to this day. The Mt. Tam sunset ridge ceremony was shut down in 1990. Without the efforts of High Times, 420 likely would have died out in the early 90s.

Even though High Times became the magazine success story of the 90’s and the Freedom Fighters spearheaded the return of the rallies, re-igniting the sleeping marijuana movement, success only seemed to bring problems for me, as I was soon forced to disband the Freedom Fighters and there were constant pressures to shut down the Cup as well, or at least remove my supervision. I moved home to concentrate on events and how to document them for posterity as I felt there was something important in these 420 ceremonies. At the time, I was primarily interested in building up WHEE! as the premiere cannabis event in North America.

I’d been trying for years to get Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters over to the Cannabis Cup, and had lured Mountain Girl when she was poor and adventurous, but at one point realized if I wanted to do a ceremony with Kesey, it was going to have to happen in his backyard, and that’s what happened. The first year (1997) we had over 300 vendors and 20,000 attendees.

Of course the Pranksters “got” 420 immediately, and the reason the code suddenly began skyrocketing through the Grateful Dead scene was threefold: first, Rainbow Family and Dead Family were basically the same thing and the Freedom Fighters and 420 had acquired a huge presence at Rainbow; second, Jack Herer and Chef RA “got” 420 and they became influential figures and spread the code; and three, and probably most important, the Pranksters “got” 420, and began actively pushing it. And Kesey was the most influential person in the Dead scene after Jerry Garcia.

One day, I got an email from Mike, the travel agent of the Cannabis Cup, who had been made producer of the event with me directing the ceremonies. He forwarded a message from Steve in San Francisco who claimed to have started 420 with his friends in 1971. The part that caught my attention was Steve wasn’t seeking money, he just wanted to know the real story. He was writing to the Cannabis Cup travel package website because Mike had put up a forum for posting 420 Cannabis Cup stories, and this website drew the attention of the Waldos, who had been following the spread of 420 across America with much mirth and amazement.

By 2002, head shops in the Bay Area were stuffed with 420-t-shirts, buttons, hats, posters, and various other memorabilia. The code has become a well-known secret inside cannabis culture and been written about in High Times and celebrated as the central ceremony in the Cannabis Cup and WHEE!, the two biggest and most influential cannabis-themed events at the time (if you don’t count Kumba Mela). Still, however, outside the Bay Area, the code remained an enigma, even to most stoners.

I ended up flying out to San Francisco and meeting the Waldos and holding epic ceremonies with them for days, all of which were captured on video, as were my 420 ceremonies with the Pranksters and the elders of the Rainbow Family. In fact, whenever I get together with Pranksters, Waldos or Rainbow Elders, the same magic improvisational energy always emerges, along with an overwhelming desire to have fun. I never doubted the Waldo’s story, and read the truth in their hearts before I examined their documents. But the powers-that-be at High Times never trusted me, and the publisher spread the story I was suppressing competing tales on the origins of 420 because the Waldos were my friends, implying it all a massive hoodwink on my part.

I also began a college lecture tour in 1995, debating Curtis Sliwa for five years, and then the former head of the New York DEA for additional 14, and “Heads versus Feds” traveled to over 300 colleges and universities over 19 years and I videotaped hundreds of debates as well as collecting local TV news coverage. The event became one of the most popular college lectures of the decade, producing standing-room-only audiences in multi-thousand seat theaters. The debate was so lop-sided I had to coach Bob on which points he should ditch and which ones were my weakest. Our carefully crafted performance was stuffed with stand-up comedy interspersed with moments of high drama, and instead of polarizing the audience, we drew them closer together. By the end most everyone agreed cannabis was not for kids, and should be respected, not abused, but it was also not a crime worth destroying lives over. We always had a line of medical marijuana users asking questions, some of whom were Vietnam Vets begging Bob for compassion, and he provided it.

There were also hostile attacks on Bob that required my immediate tamping down. Whenever Black Belt Bob felt obliged to invite an abuser to engage in a more physical confrontation, I knew it was time for me to jump out with, “Don’t blame the cops…they don’t make the laws! They are trapped in this nightmare just like we are.”

One of my central points for legalization was prescription medications posed far more danger than cannabis, and eventually we would see tremendous devastation from over-prescription of legal drugs, something that quickly became all-too-true.

I told college kids not to intoxicate, but concentrate on their education although I did provide dispensation for one day only. On April 20, at 4:20 PM if they held a circle of hands, and a moment of silence for world peace, it was okay to partake of the peace culture sacrament. Nowhere was this embraced more ardently than Boulder, Colorado, which is why for a brief time, Colorado grabbed the center of gravity on 420.

At every debate I invited Bob to attend the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, all expenses paid so he could try cannabis for the first time. Bob always declined and the repartee that followed produced the biggest laughs of the night. (Many decades later, after Bob developed back problems his doctor recommended cannabis. Bob tried it and it worked, so he wrote a mea culpa for the media.)

I also urged students to have a peace ceremony at 4:20 on April 20th, while urging moderation, reminding them “the less you do, the higher you get,” and ended each debate with a plea for the creation of a local student-run legalization group, and urged students to hold annual events on April 20th, and have local bands play to raise money for the chapter.  I promised if they made that group and held that 420 ceremony, I would return some day to celebrate with them.

According to Allen St. Pierre, former head of NORML: “Without Hager, I don’t think there’s any way that this interesting numerology would have crept deep into American culture and commerce.” But he remains the lone cannabis influencer who acknowledges my contribution.

One of the earliest schools we traveled to for the Heads versus Feds debate was Boulder, Colorado, and that school soon started a 420 ceremony that got so big the University had to shut down the entire school on April 20th just to try and stop it. And that’s how Denver got the center of gravity on 420 for a few years. My agent booking the debate always booked April 20 first every year, which meant I could never attend any 420 ceremonies on 420 except my own.

I’ve long supported the position 420 is a tool for legitimizing cannabis as the sacrament of peace. I was never in favor of students doing breakfast dabs on exam days. I knew some students get overly attracted to intoxication early in life, and it holds them back, but on the other hand, I never believed anyone should go to jail, lose a student loan, or custody of their kids over cannabis. Limited experimentation can be beneficial to some teens. I suggested using 4:20 PM as a guide for an appropriate hour for the adult population to hold cannabis ceremonies away from the children. I also granted dispensation to the students for one day annually, provided they attended a peace circle while imbibing.

Sadly, in 2016 that former news editor posted a story about how he “discovered 420” that failed to mention me at all. He then told a Huff Post reporter that I had nothing to do with promoting 420, and that the code took off on its own, as if my events and ceremonies had zero to do with what happened. This same person denied the story of the Waldos for years and had always pointedly refused to participate in my ceremony at the office.

The biggest fallacy today (spread mostly by that same person) is the code was spread through the Grateful Dead. Even Wikipedia falsely makes this claim as if the Waldo’s parents gave the code to the Dead who spread it to their followers. In fact, the Dead never mentioned 420 all through the 1990s. Meanwhile, every High Times magazine for decades was pushing 420 on the Hemp 100. That is where most Deadheads picked it up. That and the hundreds of college lectures I was doing across the country urging people to celebrate the sacrament of peace culture.

I’m hoping some who see this will “get” 420, and take their consumption to a higher level on the magic day rather than just as an excuse to get intoxicated. Only then will we be able to forge a culture worthy of being handed down to future generations. If you treat the plant with respect, there can be magic, but for those who partake without wisdom and become too attached too early in life, it mostly becomes a very expensive habit. The other thing I’ve learned is that if you want to have a true counterculture ceremony, everyone must be invited, which means the ceremony has to welcome everyone and can’t just be about stoners getting high and nothing else.

Last year to celebrate the holiday, I posted a 420 ceremony on Youtube. Check it out and learn some history on peace culture.


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