In the early 1970s California teenagers started using the number 420 to refer to marijuana. Or did they? There is no hard evidence to support any 420 origin claims other than testimony from a gaggle of deluded, fabulist loons.
Mainstream media outlets including the New York Times, LA Weekly and even Snopes.com report that 420 originated with a group of kids from San Raphael High School who met by a statue of Louis Pasteur to get high, at4:20 PM, in 1971. In the 1990s the myth was perpetuated by High Times magazine, which embraced a group of Bay Area baby boomers calling themselves the Waldos. High Times took the 420 concept to new, er, lows by promoting the hell out of it. Then, in 2012 Brad “Bebe” Bann claimed that he invented 420 in his bedroom, in 1970. In 2013 one of the Waldos wrote a baseless piece for the Huffington Post attacking Bebe’s claims. So many stories. So little proof.
The Waldos never smoked marijuana by a statue at 4:20 PM, and Bebe did not coin the term 420. The first time the number appears in print in reference to marijuana is in High Times in 1991. The article gets it wrong – 420 is not police code for Marijuana Smoking In Progress. The source for the story? “From a flyer passed out at New Year’s Dead Shows.”
The mainstream media, and most stoners, believe a tall tale that is as low on substance as a non-alcoholic beer. That left it to me — a pot shop writer – to get the real story.
San Rafael High School is on a gorgeous campus filled with palm trees and surrounded by an upscale neighborhood. Was the term 420 born here?
Bebe says he invented 420. His buddies were smoking in his bedroom and he looked at the clock, at 4:20, and that became their code word for getting high. “I planned nothing. It just happened.” According to Bebe, the Waldos appropriated the phrase from him.
Bebe says his crew were jocks and that the Waldos were nerds. The Waldos now claim that their name refers to a wall outside school which was a hang-out spot, and that they were “athletic” and not nerds.
According to the Waldos, 4:20 PM was when they would meet at a statue outside school to get high. The statue of Louis Pasteur, by Beniamino Bufano, is a haunted looking, armless red granite figure with an unusual stainless steel cloak, created in 1940 for the WPA Federal Art Project. Bufano also designed a kind of totem pole called the peace obelisk, which still looks out over the Pacific ocean at the Timber Cove Inn. Real stoner stuff – although Bufano himself was not a cannabis user.
In 1917 Bufano accidentally cut off part of his index finger. He mailed it to president Wilson to protest World War One.
In 1969 he tried to remove the statue from school grounds, claiming he had never been paid. He died a year later.
Bufano is probably the most interesting and credible character involved in the story of 420.
PARTYING EVERY DAY?
The Pasteur statue is right near the school. California in the early 70s was a free-wheeling time, but is it plausible that a group of students were meeting regularly right outside school to toke up? School got out at 3 and then many students and faculty were there until 4 doing sports and activities. People were going to jail for pot in Marin. Was there really frequent open toking on school grounds, in full view of students, faculty and staff?
My hippie grandpa lived in Marin in the 70s, and told me they were very paranoid about marijuana back then and had to be sneaky about it. You did it in private.
And why 4:20? You’d think a stoner kid getting out of school at 3 would be lighting up at, say, 3:10. The SRHS website says that these days the schedule ends at 3:20. Plenty of time to pack a bowl and head out to the statue. Probably a worse idea now than it was back in the 1970s – California law is extremely strict about mixing controlled substances and public schools.
I contacted the assistant principal at SRHS, but did not hear back. Later I realized that High School administrators probably don’t like questions about 420 from famous pot shop writers, because of the association with illegal drugs, firstly.
According to Mike Edison’s I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World – High Times glommed on to the 420 concept in the 1990s.
“The ‘truth’ behind the legend of 420 was ‘discovered’ by Steve Hager in 1997 when a group of Deadheads who called themselves the Waldos contacted him and claimed they had started it. (This is how Hager discovers things: someone tells him.)”
It sounds like fact checking at High Times was not a priority back then. Editor Steve Hager fell for a tall tale in the form of a simple prank letter.
Hager took the 420 concept to “mind boggling, cult-like extremes … pages in the magazine were dedicated to the Waldos. All other myths and legends surrounding 420 were suppressed. (High Times could be a lot like Soviet era Pravda in the way it censored and controlled drug information and propaganda to suit its chemically altered view of reality).”
High Times started out as a true counterculture magazine. In the Steve Hager era, they made money selling ads for fake pot. A publication about marijuana that accepts advertising for fake marijuana. Kind of like if Cigar Aficionado magazine sold ads for cigars made of puke.
“420 was the secret sign marijuana smokers used to identify each other, similar to the way the early Christians used the sign of the fish to avoid persecution. It wasn’t much of a secret: we peddled enough 420 merchandise to flood a small flea market.”
Now days Hager writes conspiracy books. He did not respond to our multiple requests for comment. His website claims that he “organized the first 420 ceremonies outside of Marin County.”
BEBE VS. WALDOS
In 2012 420magazine published the Bebe’s 420 origin story. A year later the Waldos posted (on April 20, of course) a bitter rebuttal on Huffington Post.
“The Waldos have always told the truth about their adventures, and do have multiple pieces (and growing) of objective, verifiable, physical evidence-proof to help back up their story that they were using the term 420 as a weed reference before anybody else in the world.”
The Waldos write that Bebe’s “sudden lies are economically motivated.” Bebe is selling 420 t-shirts at hisbeebmarcos420.com website, but the e-commerce there is broken. Not much economic motivation. His version of the 420 story is there, though, for what it’s worth. It’s more plausible than the Waldo/statue story but it’s still bullshit. Bebe calls himself “the Thomas Edison of 420.” He works as a lounge singer, “Northern California’s Favorite Crooner,” doing Frank Sinatra covers, if his bradbann.com website is to be believed.
“The Waldos are the only true account, supported by years of scrutiny and historical evidence.” Who how where when what and why the fuck does the Huffington Post print unverified shit like this? Did they hire their fact-checkers away from High Times?
HIGH TIMES: STILL FLOGGING THE 420 HORSE
On April 11 High Times published a piece by Karen Bettez Halnon (Ph.D.) called “THE POWER OF 420.” Unfactual psychobabble about how important 420 is for the “collective consciousness of stoners.”
The writer could have been hand picked by Steve Hager – she takes 420 very seriously and assumes everybody else does too.
Here’s her full coverage of the Bebe vs. Waldo issue: “whether or not the smokers I talked with actually knew of the veracity of Waldo’s claim, it made little difference in their indifference to determining 420’s true origin. What fascinated me about origin theories was that while smokers actively discussed and debated them, they didn’t care about determining the ultimate truth.” No. Of course. Fascinating that nobody cares.
Halnon is an assistant professor of sociology at Penn State “who researches in the areas of deviance, popular culture, and shock media.” Here’s some shock media – High Times will print anything that perpetuates the 420 myth. Perhaps because they earn money from their “420.com” domain name.
Here’s some more shock media. Dr. Halnon got arrested last month for smoking a tobacco cigarette on an American Airlines flight. The Daily Mail reports that Halnon was “expressing an act of civil disobedience and said the cigarette was a symbol that identified her revolutionary cause.” Halnon told Philadelphia Magazine “I am a sociologist, and I live in an intellectual world. A sociologist always thinks in terms of symbols. And every revolutionary I know smokes.” They mention that she pleaded guilty to public drunkenness in 2013.
HIGH ENOUGH TO BELIEVE THE MEDIA
In March a marijuana publication called SF Evergreen profiled five of the Waldos – with a photo – but declined to identify them. A prosperous looking group of sixty-something guys. A touch of grey in the hair.
The article claims that the real names of the Waldos “are guarded secrets, a move made to avoid the notoriety that would otherwise dog them in their current grown-up, straight-laced dad lives.” Northern California is one of the most weed-tolerant places on Earth. The president of the United States has admitted to huffing up some Hawaiian pot as an errant youth, but the Waldos can’t come clean?
The Waldos have a new website at 420waldos.com where they claim to possess “MULTIPLE pieces of physical evidence … preserved in a high-security bank safety deposit vault.”
Here is their evidence. “Early 1970’s U.S. Postmarked letter.” With a scan of an undated letter. No postmark. No envelope.
“The 420 flag. The creator of the flag is still friends with the Waldos, living in Marin, and has met with credible official Press (along with the Waldos) to document its creation.” Who is the creator? What press did he meet with? I guess we’ll just have to trust the Waldos. “Forensic labs or auction houses may further date the flag by degradation of dyes, etc.”
Another piece of non-evidence: “early 70s letter from across the sea.” They couldn’t be bothered to scan in the envelope, but they provide clip art of an air mail envelope which is stamped “2012.”
The Waldos site shows a San Rafael High Newspaper “dated early 70’s — this is an original paper and not a photocopy or archived image … Waldo family member answers the Question Man with a simple answer of 420.” No scan of the actual column is provided, but the cover of the newspaper says 1974 – years after the events allegedly took place. More evidence pointing to the fact that the Waldos have no real evidence.
“The Huffington Post confirmed with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh personally about the Waldo/Dead association.” The father of one Waldo handled real estate for the Grateful Dead. Phil Lesh told the Huffington Post that “he wouldn’t be surprised” if the Waldos invented 420.
That is the extent of the Waldo “documented proof.”
FAMOUS WALDOS ON STAGE
The Waldos gave members of New Riders of the Purple Sage a trophy at the High Times Music Awards. You gotta admire pranksters who are willing to take their schemes all the way to a High Times PR event!
The 420waldos.com news and media section tries to promote the 420 Waldo origin myth with links to articles from the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and many others that promote the Waldos origin myth. Is “fact-checker” even a profession any more?
The “Meet the Waldos” page lists only Waldo Dave, and no specific information about him is given. Some meeting.
And the Waldos have their own beer! The Lagunitas Brewery does a batch of “Waldo’s Special” every year. Ironically, this beer is the only part of the Waldos pot story that isn’t fake.
David Reddix and Steve Capper – the two Waldos who went public – responded to my “the 420 perpetrators are full of shit unless you can provide more proof” query with a link to their 2013 Huffington post attack on Bebe, followed by the “the media believes it” bit: “The Huffington Post (original and updated stories), The Los Angeles Times, and SO many other news organizations sent trained, experienced, investigative reporters with journalistic credentials to San Francisco to meet with us, examine all of our hard physical evidence, and carefully conclude with integrity.”
The Waldos don’t like people who challenge their version of events, apparently. “For you to put out anything ‘in haste’ is probably not a great idea.”
BEBE COME BACK!
Bebe and I had a couple of nice, vague phone conversations, but he never really responded to my numerous interview questions other than to say “I think you have the way it went down. Thank You!”
Then I emailed him using the sort of stern language Mike Tyson might have learned when he was in prison. And that prompted this reply: “You have most of the answers. Current Bebe working 40 hours and doing Sinatra gigs … The Waldos were childhood friends of mine. When the 420 Band came out with our first CD the Waldos went crazy saying they invented it. The Bebe never took the Waldos seriously for many years I’ve listened and watched the Waldos perpetuate their lies, a few years ago I threw my hat in with the truth. The Waldos manufactured their own story and evidence. Bebe.”
Bebe’s friend Guy Perry told me they are “in pre-production mode” for the Beeb Marcos & 420 movie. “The story is more about Brad’s teenage antics. As a prankster, Brad was Ferris Bueller, and was 20 years ahead of the Jerky Boys on prank phone calls.”
ABOLISH 420? TOO LATE!
I believe 420 is as outdated as tie-dye, David Crosby and .. High Times magazine. Marijuana users these days don’t need code words – they just need cash so they can buy legal marijuana, at least here in Washington.
And the bad luck thing? Numerologists are well aware that in 420 AD Roman Emperor Theodosius II invaded Iran, and that was a bummer. Plus, some assholes were born on that day and some other assholes died on that day. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill … I could go on.
Wow! Did you just really get through 2500 word story about the fake origins of 420? Maybe you should have just skipped ahead to right here: Bebe, the Waldos and High Times Magazine are selling you a bill of goods. Foggy, conflicting eyewitness testimony from four decades ago is not good evidence, and it’s all they’ve got.
It’s as if 420 never happened, and almost better that way. The 420 of mystery and magic and lack of facts will live on forever. And the pranksters win!