It is 4/20, the day tens of thousands of Americans gather around the country to celebrate a drug that remains illegal in most of the country: marijuana.
April 20 (or 4/20) is cherished by pot smokers around the world as a reason to toke up with friends and massive crowds each year and celebrate their favorite drug. Major rallies occur across the country, particularly in places like Colorado, Washington state, and Washington, DC, where marijuana possession is legal.
But as support for marijuana legalization grows — with several states considering it in 2016 — the festivities are becoming more mainstream. As a result, marijuana businesses are looking to leverage the holiday to find more ways to sell and market their products. This puts 4/20’s current iteration in sharp contrast with the holiday once embraced by a counterculture movement that was largely made up of hippies and others who decried greed, corporate influences, and all things mainstream.
Why is 4/20 National Weed Day? There are a few theories.
There are a few possible explanations for why marijuana enthusiasts’ day of celebration landed on April 20, but the real origin remains a bit of a mystery.
Steven Hager, a former editor of the marijuana-focused news outlet High Times, told the New York Times that the holiday came out of a ritual started by a group of high school students in the 1970s. As Hager explained, a group of Californian teenagers ritualistically smoked marijuana every day at 4:20 pm. The ritual spread, and soon 420 became code for smoking marijuana. Eventually 420 was converted into 4/20 for calendar purposes, and the day of celebration was born. (A group of Californians published documents giving this theory legitimacy, but it’s unclear if their claims are valid.)
One common belief is that 420 was the California police or penal code for marijuana, but there’s no evidence to support those claims.
Another theory is that there are 420 active chemicals in marijuana, hence an obvious connection between the drug and the number. But there are more than 500 active ingredients in marijuana, and only about 70 or so are cannabinoids unique to the plant, according to the Dutch Association for Legal Cannabis and Its Constituents as Medicine.
A lesser-known possibility comes from the 1939 short story “In the Walls of Eryx” by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling. The story describes “curious mirage-plants” that seemed fairly similar to marijuana and appeared to get the narrator high at, according to his watch, around 4:20. Since the story is from 1939, it’s perhaps the earliest written link between marijuana and 420.
Whatever its origins, 4/20 has become a massive holiday for cannabis aficionados.
4/20 is the biggest single-day celebration of marijuana
Today, 4/20 is partly about supporting people’s legal rights to use marijuana. But just like St. Patrick’s Day is known as a holiday for America’s booze lovers despite its religious origins, 4/20 is turning into a major holiday for the country’s pot enthusiasts.
What the holiday stands for varies from person to person. Some people just want to get high and have fun. Others see the day as a moment to push for legalization, or celebrate legalization now that more states are adopting it and it has popular opinion behind it.
Back in the 1970s, 4/20 was part of a smaller counterculture movement that embraced marijuana as a symbol to protest against broader systemic problems in the US, like overseas wars and the power of corporations in America. “Marijuana was the way you said you weren’t a suit,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, previously told me.
In recent years, marijuana legalization activists have tried to bring a more formal aspect to the celebration, framing it as a moment to push their political agenda. Organizers for the 2014 Denver rally — during the first year marijuana sales were legal in the state — put out a statement comparing the battle for legal marijuana to “the time when Jews fled from slavery in Egypt,” a moment commemorated in Passover celebrations. “This year’s rally represents the continuing fight for freedom from economic slavery for marginalized members of our community and a rebirth of creative genius that will get us there,” they wrote.
Businesses are also trying to take advantage of the holiday. Eddie Miller, CEO of Invest in Cannabis, which seeks to bring investment into the marijuana industry, previously told me that his company was trying to build and sponsor major 4/20 gatherings around the country — similar to what other companies, some of which Miller has been involved with, have done with holidays like St. Patrick’s Day.
“Our perspective is 4/20 is a real holiday — no smaller than St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween,” Miller said. “It’s just nobody knows about it yet. And our company is going to let everyone know about it.”
Legalization is turning 4/20 into a commercial holiday
Originally 4/20 was a counterculture holiday to protest, at least in part, the social and legal stigmas against marijuana. Marijuana legalization undercuts that purpose: As big businesses and corporations begin growing and selling pot, marijuana will slowly lose its status as a counterculture symbol — and that, Humphreys of Stanford University speculated, could bring the end of the traditional, countercultural 4/20.
“If a corporate marijuana industry adopts 4/20, it would still be a celebrated event, but not with the same countercultural meaning,” Humphreys said in an email. “People celebrated Christmas long before it became an occasion for an orgy of gift-buying and materialist consumption, but the meaning of the holiday for most people was different then than it is now.”
Companies such as Invest in Cannabis admit they’re already leveraging the holiday as another opportunity to promote the industry and its products — much like beer and other alcohol companies now do with St. Patrick’s Day.
“The media is covering 4/20 as a consumer interest story,” Miller of Invest in Cannabis said “But some portion of the media is covering 4/20 as a call to arms for the industry — so [in 2015] there are multiple competitive business conferences that are happening in Denver, the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and Las Vegas.”
The pot industry has also gotten directly involved in 4/20 events. The Cannabis Cup, for example, has become a major event at Denver’s 4/20 rallies, where hundreds of vendors show off their finest marijuana products to more than 40,000 attendees. The event has steadily grown over the years, featuring big concerts from notable musicians like Snoop Dogg, Soja, and 2 Chainz, as well as a wide collection of marijuana businesses as sponsors.
The Cannabis Cup is only one of many events, which also include comedy shows (like Cheech and Chong), marijuana-friendly speed dating, and trade shows for glass pipes and bongs, offering businesses and celebrities various opportunities to push their products and brands.
Still, some people don’t attend the public festivities at all, choosing instead to stay home and enjoy a joint (or more) with their friends. For these people, 4/20 likely remains a more casual affair void of big sponsorships and marketing.
But in public, 4/20 is increasingly becoming a commercial holiday.
4/20 started big in Western states, but it’s expanded
Since 4/20 supposedly originated in California, according to Hager at the High Times, it’s unsurprising that 4/20 is a big deal there. But the celebration has already spread — particularly to other Western states.
The most well-known 4/20 rally tends to be in Denver. Following Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana in 2012, Denver became the first big city to allow recreational marijuana shops. That made Denver the center of the legalization movement and, as a result, the capital of 4/20 celebrations in the US. (In particular, the 4:20 pm smoke-out — in which tens of thousands gather in front of the state capitol to smoke pot at 4:20 pm on 4/20 — is heralded as one of the largest pot rallies in the world.)
But celebrations are also taking place in Seattle, Las Vegas, and Washington, DC. And Miller of Invest in Cannabis expects the list of cities hosting major 4/20 celebrations to expand over the years, with some focusing less on tourism and more on local events.
“I believe Denver and Colorado in general will continue to grow with their cannabis tourism,” he said. “Separately, you can see that, for example, San Jose is not a primarily tourist destination — but the events happening in the Bay Area are primarily for the residents of the Bay Area.”
Americans support marijuana legalization, but they’re not okay with public smoking
Although surveys show 4/20 celebrators have the support of most Americans when it comes to legalization, many people would likely disapprove of the public smoke-outs that often take place in celebration of 4/20.
A 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans support legalization, and 82 percent said it wouldn’t bother them if people used marijuana in their own homes — but 62 percent said it would bother them if someone used pot in public.
This puts 4/20 in a tricky place for legalization advocates: Americans by and large support the pro-legalization message of the holiday, but they’re probably not okay with someone ripping a bong in front of the state capitol.
So where can I sign up for 4/20?
It’s probably too late to plan a trip this year, unless you already live in Denver or another city holding a 4/20 rally. But if interest in the event continues climbing after legalization takes place in other states, it’s probably a good idea to be a bit forward-looking with your airplane and hotel bookings for next year’s rallies. And keep in mind that although many of the 4/20 events are open to the public, some do charge a fee for entry.