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The History of 4/20

Find Out More About 4/20 Marijuana Rallies


By David Malmo-Levine

The number “420″ was first used in reference to marijuana in the 1970s by a group of high school friends in California. They called themselves “The Waldos” and met every day at 4:20pm after school to smoke pot. They were also fans of the Grateful Dead, and popularized the use of “420″ as code for smoking pot amongst the Dead subculture. (See Huffington Post story here)

The actual 4/20 day as a celebration and protest started in Vancouver in 1995.

Canadian cannabis activist and media-dubbed “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery (who is currently a political prisoner in the USA – see was asked by his employees at his revolutionary headshop HEMP BC store if they could host a day-long protest rally on April 20th to celebrate cannabis and call for legalization.

Marc Emery wrote the following for this 2010 Cannabis Culture article about 4/20:

I remember my store manager Danna Rozek and an employee named Cindy Lassu came up to me in early April 1995, and said, “Marc, can we have a 4/20 celebration on April 20th next door in Victory Park?” I responded, “like, on 4:20 in the afternoon on April 20?” and they said, “No, like all day on April 20.”

“What will we do all day?” I asked, and they said “Smoke pot all day and play music.” I replied, “we can’t just smoke pot all day. That’s decadent. No, you can’t do it.”

Rebuffed, Ms. Rozek then asked, “Can we just go ahead and do it anyway even if you don’t approve?” So I said yes and the staff organized the first April 20 celebration I ever heard of, at Victory Square/Park next door.

200 people came that April 20, 1995 and it was a lovely time, with music starting at 2pm and going till 7pm.

In 1996, over 500 people came to Victory Park and smoked pot all day with the event starting at noon.

It was decided that Victory Square was too small for the 1997 April 20 smoke-fest, so the traditional political rally location of the Vancouver Art Gallery, in downtown Vancouver’s financial district, was the site of the 1997 4/20 celebration. Over 1,000 people attended the 1997 Vancouver 4/20 and was widely covered in media and the phenomenon began to spread to other locations across North America.”

But they did find a useful codeword. “I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, ’420,’ and it was telepathic. He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it,” Capper says. “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about. Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.”

-4/20: How ‘Weed Day’ Got Its Name, Huffington Post, 04/20/2012

According to Wikipedia, “four-twenty” is “a term used primarily in North America to refer to the consumption of cannabis and, by extension, a way to identify oneself with cannabis subculture. Observances based on the number include the time (4:20 pm) as well as the date (April 20).”

If you want to find someone to have a long-term (or short-term) relationship with or rent an apartment with who shares your proclivities for cannabis combustion, or perhaps find a fellow musician who also smokes pot to form a rock and roll band with, or even find a ride up to a ski resort with someone else who likes to ride in cars while happy, hungry and relaxed, you merely have to type in “420 friendly” on the popular “acquire things and meet people” website “craigslist” and PRESTO – you have quickly and automatically found your bud-loving brethren.

The origins of the term “420” as secret code for “cannabis” and/or “cannabis smoking” date back to 1971, when a group of San Rafael high-school students known as “The Waldos” used to wait until 4:20 pm to smoke up after school next to the statue of Louis Pasteur, and commence their hunt for a well-hidden but abandoned pot patch somewhere near the Point Reyes Peninsula. They never found the patch, but the code lingered on. The Grateful Dead used San Rafael as a residence, and their followers – “dead heads” picked up the lingo from the Waldo’s, who themselves had close ties to the band.

The origins of the 420 rally in Vancouver involve cannabis activist Marc Emery and his decision to hire a wild pack of “Deadheads” to run his first cannabo-centric retail shop in Vancouver – “Hemp BC”. According to Marc:

In March 1995, while working as manager of my Hemp BC store, Dannaand Cindy asked me at my desk, “Marc, can we have a 420 celebration next door at Hemp For Victory Square (which is what we called Victory Square at Cambie & Hastings back then) on April 20?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, ” You mean we should go over and smoke in the park at 4:20 on April 20 because that’s the 4th month, 20th day?”

“No,” replied Danna, ” I mean we should party over there all day on April 20, not just at 4:20 in the afternoon.”

“My God, no, that’s decadent, we can’t party all day” I said, being very much of the Ayn Rand school of cannabis liberation, and thinking a day-long party was unthinkable to my capitalist work ethic.

So Danna and Cindy went back to work in the store. An hour later Danna came back to me and said, “Even though you don’t approve, can we do it anyway?”

I thought about that and asked, “Well, what would you do?”

Danna replied, “We’d get a PA system, invite a few bands, give speeches, smoke lots of pot, from, say, noon to 5 pm.”

“Do you think we’d get away with that?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes! It’ll be so much fun.”

“All right. You can give it a shot.” I conceded.

“Will you help us because you have the money and we’ll need electrical power, cables, PA equipment, and other things?” she cajoled.

“Okay,” I remember laughing at her audacity, “I’ll help you.”

On April 20, 1995, it was a beautiful sunny day, and 6 cables ran from various electrical outlets at Hemp BC seventy-five feet to Victory Square to supply power for the PA system, the microphones, amplifiers. The party began around noon but because it was a very new idea, never done on April 20 any time before, there were about only 150 people by 2 pm, peaking at 250 people at 4:20 pm. Nonetheless, open pot smoking went on for about 6 hours without any police interference, much to my surprise, only 25 feet from a major intersection of Hastings and Cambie. Everyone who came seemed to have a wonderful time.

Activist David Malmo-Levine (me) got to Vancouver that same year – 1995 – and began to organize the “Cannabis Day” (July 1st) pot rallies in 1996, where the “bud raffle” was introduced. This then led to open cannabis sales, which were protected from police interference by “hug power”, which is a tactic of civil disobedience that consists of avoiding touching the police while at the same time hugging the person getting arrested for the cannabis crime and not letting go.

The history of the Cannabis Day rallies – complete with an extensive photo archive – can be found here:

It was the mixing of the traditional 420 smoke-in and the more cutting-edge civil disobedience of “Cannabis Day” – made possible through “hug power” – that has given the current Vancouver 420 it’s special “cannabis farmer’s market” allure – the excitement of being able to grow, deal and buy cannabis in public has caused the number of attendees to grow exponentially.

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Hopefully, within a year or two, Vancouver won’t be the only city in Canada with an open-air cannabis farmer’s market. Perhaps one day, with any luck and a bit of bravery, all the cities and towns in Canada will have such a market, once or twice a year, on April 20th and July 1st.

The introduction and popularity of YouTube in 2006 helped show people worldwide what was happening in Vancouver. In 2007 Vancouver held the world’s largest 4/20 celebration with 7,000 people packed onto the small downtown Art Gallery Square, nearly spilling onto the streets as clouds of cannabis smoke wafted through the city’s core and vendors wandered around selling cannabis, which was becoming an increasingly popular activity at the event.

Each year got busier than the last, leading to the Vancouver 4/20 event being the largest free protest festival in the city, with day-long music, public speakers (always including Marc Emery until his extradition to the United States in May 2010), and the world’s only open-air public cannabis farmer’s market where people sell all kinds of cannabis and extracts while educating the crowd about medical marijuana, political involvement, activism, and much more.

Over 10,000 people regularly attend, with numbers reaching up to 13,000 around the 4:20pm countdown and free joint toss, which has been a fixture of the event for many years. The Vancouver 4/20 protest celebration is a unique and incredible experience that everyone is sure to enjoy!


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