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Pot culture's '420' history has seeds in California, Grateful Dead

| Thursday, April 19, 2018, 12:45 p.m.
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Friday, April 20 is a sort of holiday for marijuana advocates and enthusiasts, but the ties between “420” and pot culture grew not from a date, but a time.

The mythbusters and fact-checkers at Snopes.com trace the origins of 420 to a small cadre of pot-smoking, treasure-hunting high schoolers in 1971 San Rafael, California, who called themselves the “Waldos” because they hung out near a wall.

The five would tell each other “4:20 Louis” to meet at 4:20 p.m. near a campus statue of Louis Pasteur before they'd set off in search of a fabled, abandoned marijuana field ready to harvest. As with the best quest stories, though, the journey was the most important part, and though they never found the crop they eventually turned “420” into their shorthand for hanging out, going on “safaris” and smoking, according to two former Waldos interviewed last year by Time Magazine .

Through friends, relatives, and proximity in Northern California, the Waldos crossed paths with members of the Grateful Dead, which helped spread the term like so much smoke over the band's fanbase by promoting the time and date as a collective moment to light up. Steve Bloom, a former reporter for High Times magazine, told Huffington Post in 2010 that he first found the “holiday” connotation in a Grateful Dead concert flyer in 1990, and his publication adopted the number from there.

It became a code or password, as in ads seeking roommates or dates who were “420-friendly.” But as cities and states loosened marijuana penalties, then decriminalized or legalized pot for medical or recreational use, the number became more mainstream: it showed up in brand names of beers made with skunky-smelling hops, marijuana-derived products, or the dispensaries and doctors dealing with medical marijuana. California's 2003 medical marijuana law was Senate Bill 420.

“It's becoming less and less of a stigma or negative stereotype,” said Patrick Nightingale, an attorney and executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Nightingale, 48, said he was of a generation that grew up with “Just Say No” and was less likely to openly admit cannabis use, but now legalization in places like California, Colorado and Washington, D.C. made the use of the number and April 20 commemorations less surreptitious — even if they're in places where pot is still illegal.

Pittsburgh NORML, for example, is sponsoring a party Friday at the Hollywood Lanes in Dormont that will include a raffle for a vacation to a pot-serving Bed and Breakfast in Colorado and $1,420 in cash, among other prizes. Afterward, members will represent at conferences on marijuana in Washington and hemp in Scranton, he said.

A medical marijuana conference last week in Pittsburgh featured the “420 Games” and a 4.2-mile race , though the timing of the conference meant it didn't fall on the auspicious day itself.

PurePenn, a McKeesport-based marijuana grower and processer licensed by Pennsylvania as part of its new medical marijuana program, will deliver products from its first harvest to Squirrel Hill's Solevo dispensary Friday, though CEO Gabe Perlow said the distribution falling on 4-20 was purely a coincidence.

“It was happenstance; this was the date we were able to go through all the steps with the state for testing and approval before distribution,” Perlow said. Currently the state only allows marijuana-derived oils, tinctures and lotions, distributed by licensed growers through dispensaries to patients with a prescription. Pennsylvania only recently approved medical use of dry-leaf marijuana, and only then in a form that can be vaporized, not smoked.

Perlow didn't think state regulators would have picked the date for its association.

“This is a medically-focused program for them, and for us,” he said.

Nightingale likewise cautioned that in Pennsylvania, recreational marijuana use remains illegal, as does operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana products.

“Don't think you're going to celebrate 4-20 by rolling a joint and cruising around Pittsburgh,” he said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or on Twitter @msantoni.

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