This Tuesday is April 20th, otherwise known as 420. For some it’s just another day in the week, but for others it’s a much-anticipated and beloved holiday.
However, have you ever stopped to consider how this pseudo-holiday came to be?
A quick google search will provide a number of varying and amusing theories. Some of the most popular 420 stories include 420 as a police dispatch code for cannabis use, as the number of chemical compounds in cannabis (actually there are over 500), or the day of Bob Marley’s death (actually May 11th). However, the true origin of 420 began in 1971 at a high school in San Francisco, CA where five friends agreed to meet at 4:20pm every day near a wall outside of their school to smoke and search for a cannabis patch rumored to be abandoned in the woods. Over time, they became known as the ‘Waldos’ and 420 developed into a shorthand for anything cannabis related. Eventually, due to familial connections, the Grateful Dead picked up the phrase, incorporated it into flyers, and spread it across the nation. Today, April 20th is widely recognized across the United States and several other countries as cannabis day and celebrated by meeting up, preferably at 4:20pm, to partake in the fun.
While today we commonly associate cannabis with recreational use, the hemp plant was not originally grown and cultivated for that purpose. Originating in Central Asia around 500 BC, the hemp plant was used for herbal medicine and to make goods such as clothing, rope, and paper. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that cannabis extracts were used pharmacologically to ease nausea and promote hunger. Finally, in the early 1900’s people began capitalizing on the psychoactive effects of cannabis and regularly used it for recreational purposes. Lawful usage was short-lived, though, as the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 outlawed both recreational and medicinal cannabis use. Due to this, many 420 gatherings and events also contain a political component seeking to change current cannabis laws.
With the increase in cannabis legalization across the United States starting in 2012 , there has been a surge in research aimed to understand how cannabis interacts with our bodies as well as the potential risks and benefits of cannabis use. Consequently, we now know more about cannabis than ever before. Scientists have even named a system in our bodies after cannabis known as the endocannabinoid system (“endo” meaning produced internally and “cannabinoid” from the term cannabis itself). The endocannabinoid system is a complex network located throughout our bodies that is responsible for regulating a variety of functions including memory, appetite, mood, and pain sensitization. However, some components of cannabis, like Δ9-THC, are capable of interacting with our endocannabinoid systems to affect the same functions. This is why using cannabis often leads to feelings of euphoria or relaxation, altered perceptions, and increased appetite to name a few of the potential effects. Our understanding of cannabis is constantly evolving as research efforts are ongoing. As covered on the blog before, IU remains a pioneer in this field as one of the foremost research facilities investigating this topic.
Today the phrase 420 is synonymous with all things cannabis-related. There are now 420-themed festivals and shops as well as references found in songs, movies, and television shows. A bill titled H.R.420 has even been passed to change the regulation of cannabis. Additionally, the lore of 420 is so strong that signs bearing this marker are repeatedly stolen, forcing states either to change their signs to 419.99 or stop replacing the signs altogether.
It is undeniable that that 420 is a culture that is here to stay. So whether you choose to participate in the 420 celebrations or simply witness them from afar, just know that there is a long and amusing history preceding this holiday. Be safe and have a happy 420!
Thank you to Taylor Woodward, whose support and encouragement made this post possible.