A once clandestine counterculture pot-smoking “holiday” observed each April 20 has crossed into the mainstream this year with public gatherings that will attract thousands of participants and marketing campaigns that tout a trio of marijuana-themed movies.
As anti-drug activists chafe, the so-called “420” (pronounced “four-twenty”) celebrations “are taking on a life of their own,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, who has been working on marijuana issues for 17 years.
norml.org Allen St. Pierre St. Pierre, who thought the phenomenon was peaking about 10 years ago, has instead watched it continue to grow, thanks to the commercial efforts and “a remarkable cultural push for something that is not owned by anything, that nobody profits from per se.” It is now “highly institutionalized,” he said, ticking off dozens of events tied to the date, many organized by NORML’s 140 chapters across the nation. He said he expects to do as many as 75 media interviews this year on April 20.
While there are lots of legends on the Internet and elsewhere about the origins of “420,” “4:20” and “4/20” as terms for both marijuana itself and indulging in it, the most widely accepted is that the label came from students at a Marin County, Calif., high school in the early 1970s. The young stoners reportedly would meet after classes let out, at 4:20 p.m., to share their drugs in an era when the activity was less tolerated by society – and the legal system.
Code word and inside joke For years, the 420 label remained obscure enough to be a viable code and inside joke. But by the late 1990s, it was being pressed into use everywhere from personal ads – “420 friendly” – to clocks and scoreboards in the background scenes of popular movies. Perhaps its most noticeable effect was the choice of April 20 as a day of reefer reverence, chiefly on American college campuses.
Two of the biggest annual celebrations have been held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, both drawing thousands of students and outsiders despite attempts to discourage the gatherings. While the Boulder campus is taking a posture of grudging tolerance toward the event, Santa Cruz officials this year plan their harshest crackdown ever, sealing off the campus to all outsiders without pre-arranged business there.
But as campus administrators brace for the unwelcome publicity that attends the thick clouds of marijuana smoke rising above their campuses, film industry entrepreneurs are rubbing their hands in anticipation of money to be made.