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The Origins of 420 as a Day of Celebrating Marijuana

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The biggest celebration day in cannabis culture is April 20. The April 20 (4/20) celebration originally started in the mid-1970s as the time of day after school, 4:20 p.m., for high school students in San Rafael, California to meet and smoke pot. The phrase "I'll see at you at 4:20" became code for, "I'll be there to smoke a joint with you after classes are over".

As these students graduated and moved beyond the parochial boundaries of high school, the use of the term 4:20 showed up discreetly on a few California college campuses, but more noticeably among the ritualistic canon of the 'Deadhead' culture - that is, followers of the band The Grateful Dead. These fans made a lifestyle of following the band tour across America (and Europe), consuming LSD and lots of pot before, during and after these often-lengthy concerts. They were the first to incorporate the term "4:20" into every day vernacular.

By the mid-1980s, at any Dead tour or Rainbow gathering, you could hear the usually rhetorical question "What time is it?" and the response was, if you were hip, "Four twenty!", no matter what time it was according to Greenwich Mean Time . Then a joint would be produced and smoked. At the actual 4:20pm, a cry went out, "Four-twennnttttttyyyyyy!" as it does now a million times every day upon every hour as 4:20 p.m. across time zones. It's no exaggeration to say that a cry of "Four-Twenty!" is exhorted in 2013 in every hamlet, village, town, city, campus, on the planet every day at this magical time in the afternoon.

But the advent of worldwide celebrations taking up an entire day on April 20 is a bit more recent in our cultural history.

On Jul. 7, 1994, I opened the HEMP BC store at 324 West Hastings St. in Vancouver. This was a historic development, as the Canadian government had banned the distribution of all marijuana books, magazines, literature, bongs, pipes and all aspects of the cannabis culture in 1987 - ending the distribution of High Times in Canada, closing all pipe, bong and "head" shops in all of Canada, and even banning the distribution of Jack Herer's vital ground-breaking work "The Emperor Wears No Clothes".

Underneath the big HEMP B.C. sign at 324 West Hastings was the slogan "The Marijuana & Hemp Center For Greater Vancouver". Everything we sold was illegal, but we proudly said, "All of these pipes are for smoking marijuana. We do not endorse tobacco use." We smuggled High Times magazine into Canada and sold current and back issues, all illegal. We flaunted smoking marijuana from opening at 10:00 a.m. to closing at 9:00 p.m. every day in the store. We invited our customers to partake with us.

Pot smokers, rejoice

We were an instant sensation. We started selling seeds three months later, and we began producing the "Marijuana & Hemp Newsletter" magazine immediately, which eventually became Cannabis Culture. In issue #3 we produced the most popular article ever to be printed in all of the 79 issues of that magazine (five as Marijuana & Hemp Newsletter, twelve as Cannabis Canada, 62 as Cannabis Culture, all from 1994-2009), "How to Open Your Own Hemp Store - And Start a Revolution in your Community!" in the summer of 1995 (see the updated version from 2006 here and see the original article here).

Within a year of that article, over 30 "hemp stores" were opened across Canada, some remain in business to this day, such as the Toronto Hemp Company and Hemp Ware in St. John's.

Within days of opening, I became aware of a peculiar daily phenomenon I had never experienced as a pot smoker in my hometown of London, Ontario. From Dec. 21, 1980 -- the day I first smoked pot -- to Jul. 2, 1992, when I moved to Asia to live for 20 months, I never heard anyone yell out "Four twenty".

I arrived in Vancouver on March 1, 1994, completely new to the West Coast and Vancouver, and in May I met Ian Hunter. On a few occasions I had heard him say, "It's 4:20, everyone," to anybody nearby, and he'd light up a joint. I thought, "What strange creatures these west-coasters be!" Ian was a known hempster hipster in Vancouver. Later he would open the still-operating Sacred Herb in January 1995. Ian died in a nighttime boating accident in 1999 after smoking DMT by himself, falling out of the easily-rocked vessel. He drowned. Ian died way too young, but I was told he washed upon the shore with a beatific smile upon his face.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

Ian explained the 4:20 daily ritual to me, but I didn't think much of it at first. However, when I hired the dread-Deadheaded Danna Rozek to be the store manager in August 1994, she hired fellow Deadhead Cindy Lassu, and with Ian they became the nucleus of the HEMP BC store staff. We smoked pot in the store non-stop. At 4:20 p.m., all three would yell, "Four-twenty, smoke 'em if you got 'em!" - which seemed redundant to me, since we were always smoking anyway - it became a fun loud exclamation every day. I got used to that afternoon celebration, and I noticed that most customers to our store were unfamiliar with it, but it quickly became popular in our limited circle of customers and within the small but growing culture we were part of.

One day in early March 1995, Danna and Cindy came to me at my desk at HEMP BC, and we had this exchange I remember vividly. Danna said, "Marc, we'd like to have a 'Four-Twenty' celebration on April 20. We'd like your permission and approval to put on a Four-Twenty concert and rally and fun time in Victory Square next door."

Victory Square - which we were calling "Hemp-For-Victory Square" (named after the re-discovered 1942 US Department of Agriculture film "Hemp for Victory" that Jack Herer had found after years of the US government denying its existence), and at that time a staple in the nascent hemp and legalization movement - was a park 50 feet down the street from HEMP BC, at the southwest corner of Cambie St. and West Hastings St.

"What do you mean? A rally at 4:20 that day, on April 20?" I asked in clarification.

"No, an all-day celebration of Four-Twenty, on Four-Twenty, because April 20 is like, Four-Twenty, get it?" Danna further explained, though I had "gotten" it.

"You mean, hold a celebration, a party, rally, good time in the park, all day on April 20?!" I was aghast. "Could we get away with that?"

"Yeah, that's exactly what we mean," said Danna, representing her and Cindy. "I'm sure we could get away with it. We could try anyway. I'm sure it'll work."

As I come from an Ayn Rand capitalist-hardwork-ethos background (since October 1979), this idea that we'd enshrine a whole day of celebrating cannabis by smoking pot for several hours in a public square seemed outrageous, outlandish, and playing into the slacker-stoner stereotype.

"No, we can't do that." I said.

"Yes, we could!" Danna and Cindy immediately responded enthusiastically.

"No, I can't condone that." I reiterated.

Half an hour later the two came back to my desk as I was working. "Even if you don't approve, can we go ahead and do it anyway?" they implored.

I had always believed in taking initiative, and admired self-starters. I considered them for a few moments and said, "Yes."

They both jumped up and down and embraced each other and cried "Yay!!!" and then they immediately asked, "If we organize it, will you help?"

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Well, we drew up a budget and we'll need $200, and electrical cables from the store here to the square to provide power for the amplification system, and we'll need to work at the park most of the day, so will you help in those things and whatever else might come up?"

I remember how these two very hippie-like young women were making me part of their 4/20 conspiracy. I used to sit at my desk, puffing pot, wearing white business shirts with a tie and vest, akin to an older Alex Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) from Family Ties, with John Lennon glasses at the time.

"Yes. Put your plan together. Tell the rest of the staff (8 people at the time) and we'll make sure it happens." Again, Danna Rozek and Cindy jumped up and down, embraced and cheered.

A Vancouver tradition's humble beginning

So Apr. 20, 1995 came around. It was a beautiful sunny day. Thick cables ran from every electrical outlet at HEMP BC out the front door and east on Hastings for about 70 feet (and across cobble-stoned Hamilton Street) into Victory Square Park, where a stage was erected, musicians retained, speakers invited, even some vending booths set up. A banner over the stage welcomed the people "4/20 Day in Vancouver".

The proceedings started at noon with about 50 people watching and tentatively smoking. By 2:00 p.m. there were 150 there, many now sitting on blankets and sheets on the ground, more people comfortably ensconced for the afternoon, and a subtle waft of cannabis floating in the air. So far, no police were visible, and a certain comfort set it. At the peak at about 4:00 p.m., there were about 250 curious people watching the musical entertainers and a different speaker exhorting the benefits of cannabis every 15 to 30 minutes. It went to 7:00 p.m. when the daylight faded and at no point did any police come by even though Victory Square park is at a very busy downtown intersection. The day was a total success. No one was arrested, everyone had fun - a tradition in Vancouver had begun.

One of the speakers at this first public April 20 gathering was then-editor of Cannabis Culture (then Cannabis Canada) magazine, Dana Larsen, who has continued to be a major activist in Canada. He is currently coordinating the campaign www.SensibleBC.ca, which seeks to have a referendum placed before the voters of British Columbia to decriminalize marijuana possession. I was also one of the original speakers, along with Ian Hunter, Rev. Leroy Campbell, and Danna Rozek.

The following year in 1996, the Vancouver 4/20 was again organized by HEMP BC staff and I at Victory Square, and the park was largely occupied to capacity with over 500 people there at its peak, with a much greater concentration of cannabis smoking going on. In 1997, we decided to move the celebration to the plaza at the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver's business and shopping district, where attendance has continued to expand each year.

420 vancouver

In 1997, about 1,000 people attended with about 1,000-1,500 at its peak at 4:20 p.m. each year until about 2004, when numbers hit 3,000. Then it hit 5,000 people in 2005, and it was a noticeable increase. Traffic on the main corridor West Georgia Street was blockaded by police. YouTube's introduction and the ability to share videos online popularized the April 20 smokeout rally idea on the internet, which began to inspire other cities around the world to organize their own April 20 events.

By 2008, about 8,000 people crowded the plaza by 4:20 p.m., and Howe Street and Georgia Street were sealed off by the city. In 2010, it is possible 10,000 people attended at high peak. On April 20 last year, there were 20,000 people packed onto and around the Vancouver Art Gallery grounds at 4:20pm.

The people have smokin'

An open farmer's market has been very much a part of the celebration since 2004, and now it is the most remarkable phenomenon you can see anywhere, with dozens of cannabis vendors selling - showcasing - cannabis wares of every sort. The smoking starts now at about 8:00 a.m. and continues to about 8:00 p.m.. After 4:00 p.m., when the activist community organizers on the large stage coordinate the joint toss and count down to 4:20 p.m., the resulting cloud from 20,000+ people all smoking joints and bongs simultaneously and then exhaling is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The tradition that started in Vancouver has, through YouTube and the internet, spread to every place on earth where there are pot smokers, and we are everywhere! This year's 4/20 promises to be easily the largest attended worldwide cannabis celebration in the history of mankind, especially as it falls on a Saturday. Most major cities in Canada have a 4/20 in a public square or major park this year (see the list and add your town at www.420rally.ca).

This year, Canadian cannabis activist and lottery-winner Bob Erb contributed upwards of $100,000 to assist the organizers across Canada in putting together the most awesome national 4/20 celebration ever mounted. So there are sophisticated 4/20 celebrations in every province and territory in Canada this year, even in Yellowknife in the North West Territories!

April 20 celebrations will go on in major cities in Australia, through all the United States, and in parts of Europe and South America. Many universities and colleges in the world have a 4/20 celebration somewhere on campus that day. The internet has helped the phenomenon of 4/20 become an inspiration to every pot smoker, an opportunity to celebrate our culture.

Following on the 4/20 celebrations, another worldwide event that I sponsored in its infancy from 1998 to 2005, with about $30,000 per year in contributions, was the Global Marijuana March, originally called the Million Man Marijuana March (or Million Marijuana March). The GMM was started by Dana Beal, an activist from New York City whose activities hailed as far back as the early 1970's in the Abbie Hoffman Yippies (Youth International Party). Dana Beal and I both did pioneering work in ibogaine drug addiction rehabilitation work, and Dana established the Global Marijuana March in 1997 and brought me (and High Times Magazine) on board in 1998 to promote it.

The Global Marijuana March has less pot, and more protest and politics. In the United States, 750,000 people are convicted each year for marijuana offenses, and over 22 million Americans alive today have criminal records for marijuana convictions going as far back as 1966. Statistically, 26 million Americans have received criminal records for marijuana convictions since 1966, but four million of those convicted are no longer living.

From 1995 to 2013, in the space of 18 years (running parallel to the introduction of the "World Wide Web" in September 1994), the 4/20 phenomena has grown exponentially so that as many as ten million people will gather in public places throughout the world to celebrate cannabis by smoking marijuana, despite the prohibition in every jurisdiction on the planet (except the states of Washington and Colorado in the USA). It is expected over 200,000 Canadian cannabis consumers will participate this year, and between one million to two million Americans take part.

To find out where the 4/20 celebrations and Global Marijuana Marches are happening nearest you, go to the following links:

Vancouver & Canada 4/20 websites:
www.420Vancouver.com
www.420rally.ca