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How ‘420’ Was Born at a Northern California High School in 1971

For several decades, the true origin story behind the euphemism “420” and the international cannabis holiday we now celebrate on April 20th was not widely known. The internet therefore became filled with misinformation and myths about the term — was it a penal code associated with marijuana? Bob Marley’s birthday? — until, during the last decade, the true originators came forward to tell their story to the press, with documents to prove that they may take credit for this now global codeword for weed.

Indeed, “420” began as a codeword. It was something that five high school boys in San Rafael, California used to communicate their intention to get stoned after school together, at 4:20 p.m. — and this often meant going on some kind of clandestine adventure as teenagers often do.

The Louis Pasteur statue outside San Rafael High School. Photo: 420Waldos.com

The year was 1971. They called themselves The Waldos, because they liked to hang out by a particular wall outside San Rafael High School, where another common meeting place was a nine-foot statue of Louis Pasteur which still stands there today. “420 Louie” was their signal to each other to meet at the statue at 4:20 to toke and go on a “safari.”

Their names are Steve Capper, Jeff Noel, Larry Schwartz, Mark Gravitch, and Dave Reddix, and back in school they had the nicknames Waldo Steve, Waldo Jeff, Waldo Larry, Waldo Mark, and Waldo Dave. They are, in fact, still friends and they still hang out as a fivesome. And one important aspect of their story that they’ve sought to put out there on this relatively new website is that they weren’t your stereotypical burnouts or layabout stoners. They describe themselves as “uniquely creative and hilarious Northern California hippies — who secretly entertained themselves by doing impersonations and making observational humor of everyone, including the hippies.” They were big fans of straight-laced Johnny Carson, they were athletes — the 4:20 meeting time was because sports practice typically let out around then, and one of them was on the football team — and they attest that they were “motivated, creative, active, driven, involved, aware, intelligent, fit, and educated” teenagers.

But they loved weed, and they loved stoned adventures, and when a friend of theirs named Bill presented them with a treasure map of sorts one day in 1971, a series of “safaris” began to Point Reyes Station — a remote beach town in western Marin County about an hour’s drive from San Rafael. As Bill explained, his brother was in the Coast Guard and had, with a couple of Coast Guard buddies, planted a secret cannabis patch out there near the ocean. It was allegedly ready to harvest, but the Guardsmen had gotten scared that their commanding officers were onto them, so they gave up and granted Bill and his friends permission to go reap what they’d sown, if they could find it.

After partaking on a series of afternoons by the Pasteur statue, the gang “would pile into [Steve’s] 1966 Chevy Safari mobile and with their very important music blasting, drive and smoke out to the Pt. Reyes Peninsula (where unusual things would happen).” The tunes they’d be blasting included Bay Area stoner favorites like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but also Van Morrison, Tower of Power, Santana, the Doobie Brothers, Quicksilver, The Sons of Champlin, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Chicago, The Beatles, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Merle Haggard.

As they tell it, “The search went on for weeks. ‘Louis’ was dropped and the greeting was shortened ‘420,’ which instantly became Waldo secret code for getting high. Teachers, coaches, administrators, parents and everyone else were oblivious.” And, of course, they never found that mythical patch of free weed.

The story of how this secret code at one high school went on to become internationally known is a bit more diffuse, but the Waldos are pretty sure they know how it happened.

They themselves were never Deadheads, but they had indirect connections to the world of The Grateful Dead. As SF Evergreen reported several years back, Mark Gravitch’s dad “handled real estate” for the band, and Dave Reddix’s brother Patrick was good friends with Phil Lesh, the famous bassist of the Dead. Lesh later confirmed his friendship with Dave’s brother, and The Waldos contend that the term “420” was popularized by the band using the term on stage — though Lesh said he didn’t exactly remember this.

It’s anecdotally clear that by the late 1980s, “420” was common Northern California teen slang for marijuana, and 4:20 p.m. had become the traditional toking hour for those in the know.

A flyer for a Dead show in 1990 is reportedly responsible for spreading the falsehood about “420” being a California penal code, and then High Times magazine began calling April 20th “the grandmaster of all holidays” in 1991. By 1994, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was making reference to the term in Pulp Fiction, setting various clocks in different shots of the film to 4:20. And the Waldos began trying to tell their story in 1998 — but only came forward with their full names and documented proof of their coinage of the term in the last couple of years. (Listen below to them telling the story aloud on the podcast Criminal in 2017.)

These days, the Waldos are average middle class dads and they say they don’t get high too often anymore. They enjoy recounting all of their decidedly goofy comedic exploits — as teens, for example, they liked driving into San Francisco and playing “elevator escape” games at big hotels, stalling elevators between floors and then attempting to get out of them; and they liked picking up hitchhikers, pulling into automatic carwashes, and opening all the car windows when they got to the high-intensity dryer section.

Speaking to SF Evergreen several years ago, they told an amusing story that involved a stoned road trip to L.A. with a female friend to catch a taping of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

This was likely around the spring of 1974, when California cops were on high alert following the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst that February. And a car full of dudes with one long-haired girl caught the CHP’s attention as possibly being the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Waldos got pulled over on 101. As Capper tells it, the cops “all pulled their guns!” and the group in their car were all completely “ripped” according to Reddix, having to deal with this crazy situation.

After checking all their IDs, the cops let them go unscathed, and they were on their way to see Carson. But

As for what life is like these days, the guys are all employed — one does real estate photography, one is a filmmaker, one does marketing for a winery, one is banking, etc. — and they still find time to get together and travel.

Their legacy, even if it hasn’t made them rich or famous, still feels like something to be proud of, according to Reddix. Conjuring the 1968 Bee Gees song, “I Started a Joke,” he tells SF Evergreen, “Can you imagine making a joke up that went around the world, and everyone in the world told that joke once, at least, and got a laugh out of it, and enjoyed it?”

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