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What Does '420' Mean?

Why is the 420 term so important to the pot smoking culture?


Teenage girl (16-17) smoking, teenage boy (16-17) observing.
Doug Menuez/Photodisc/Getty Images
Quick links: Quiz: Is your teen smoking pot? | Most Important Things Parents Need to Know About Marijuana

A discussion on our Parenting Advice and Support Forum, had this Guide in puzzlement. I had reported years ago that the term 420 (pronounced four twenty, not four hundred and twenty), was police code for smoking marijuana in a feature on pager codes that teenagers use to talk to each other. I began researching the number again and it seems I was wrong. Read on to learn the myths, the truth about the origin and what this term means for parents. If you are worried that your teen may be taking drugs, please see our warning signs article and our parenting quiz: Is Your Teen Using Drugs?

Known Myths

  • Myth: Police dispatch code for smoking pot is 420.

    Fact: The number 420 is not police radio code for anything, anywhere nor has it ever been. Checks of criminal codes suggest that the origin is neither Californian nor federal. For instance, California Penal Code 420 defines as a misdemeanor the hindrance of use of public lands. Plus considering pot is a drug, the code would be possession of drugs, not smoking pot. I'm not sure if the act of smoking pot is even a separate crime, let alone dispatch code.

  • Myth: There are approximately 420 active chemicals in marijuana.

    Fact: There are approximately 315 active chemicals in marijuana. This number goes up and down depending on which plant is used.

  • Myth: April 20th is National Pot Smokers Day.

    Fact: Well, it is now; but that wasn't the origin.

  • Myth: April 20th is Hitler's birthday.

    Fact: Yes, it is his birthday. But, as 420 started out as a time, not a date, his birthday had nothing to do with it.

  • Myth: April 20th is the date of the Columbine school shootings.

    Fact: This happened after the term was already in use.

  • Myth: 4:20 is tea time for pot-smokers in Holland.

    Fact: Tea time in Holland is at 5:30 pm, or is it 2:30 pm? Seems no one is quite sure when the wonderful people of Holland drink their tea.

The Origin Revealed

According to Steven Hager, editor of High Times, the term 420 originated at San Rafael High School, in 1971, among a group of about a dozen pot-smoking wiseacres who called themselves the Waldos, who are now pushing 50. The term was shorthand for the time of day the group would meet, at the campus statue of Louis Pasteur, to smoke pot. Intent on developing their own discreet language, they made 420 code for a time to get high, and its use spread among members of an entire generation. While our teens feel that they know something we don't, you can let them in on the fact that it was your generation that came up with the numbers.

A quote from one of the Waldos in the High Times article states, "We did discover we could talk about getting high in front of our parents without them knowing by using the phrase 420." Fortunately, your teenagers will not have that same option as their parents too grew up in a drug culture and should pretty much know better.


Simply put, 420 is a symbol of cannabis and its teen culture. Today, April 20th events are international and 4:20 pm has become sort of a world wide "burn time". It certainly doesn't matter too much where the term came from because for us parents, it's a flag, a warning sign that our teenagers may be into something that could harm their future. When you see the symbol 420, be aware of what it represents, for more read How to Raise a Drug-Free Teen.

Why is the 420 term so important to the pot smoking culture?

It is something to opine over the 420 debate when they are getting high or helps them find a time to do so. The drug culture likes to have it's 'thing' so it can cement together as a group. If your teen is drawn to this debate, you should talk to him about marijuana and check for the warning signs of drug use.

Quick links: Quiz: Is your teen smoking pot? | Most Important Things Parents Need to Know About Marijuana

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