This is from some phish website re meaning of 420--this should answer everyone's questions.
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420 is a phreak's (and not just a hippie's) favorite number for a variety of reasons, or maybe for no reason at all, but colloquially the number says pot -- "let's smoke pot", or "someone's smoking pot", or "gee, i really like pot", or "time to smoke pot", either by time (4:20 a.m. or p.m.), date (April 20th), or otherwise (e.g. State Route 420). April 20th at 4:20 is marked by annual events in Mount Tamalpais, CA (an informal gathering); Marin Conty, CA (the 420 Hemp Fest); Ann Arbor, MI (the Hash Bash); and Washington, D.C. (buildup towards the July 4th Smoke-In).
Conventional wisdom: The most common tale is that 420 is the police radio code or criminal code (and therefore the police "call") in certain part(s) of California (e.g. in Los Angeles or San Francisco) for having spotted someone consuming cannabis publicly, i.e. "pot smoking in progress"; that local cannabis users picked up on the code and began celebrating the number temporally (esp. 4:20 a.m., 4:20 p.m., and April 20); that the number became nationally popularized in the late 1980s and, more ferverently, in the early- to mid-1990s; and is colloquially applied to a variety of relaxed and/or inspired contexts, including not only pot consumption but also a "good time" more generally (in contrast to the drug war surrounding).
Conventions are legends: 420 is not police radio code for anything, anywhere. Checks of criminal codes (including those of the City of San Francisco, the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, the State of California, and the federal penal code) suggest that the origin is neither Californian nor federal (the two best guesses). For instance, California Penal Code 420 defines as a misdemeanor the hindrance of use ("obstructing entry") of public lands, and California Family Code 420 defines what constitutes a wedding ceremony (Marco). One state does come close: "The Illinois Department of Revenue classifies the Alcoholic Liquor Act under Part 420, and the Cannabis and Controlled Substances Tax Act are next, under Part 428." (RB 5/19/99)
True story?: "According to Steven Hager, editor of High Times, the term 420 originated at San Rafael High School, in 1971, among a group of about a dozen pot-smoking wiseacres who called themselves the Waldos. The term 420 was shorthand for the time of day the group would meet, at the campus statue of Louis Pasteur, to smoke pot. ``Waldo Steve,' a member of the group who now owns a business in San Francisco, says the Waldos would salute each other in the school hallway and say ``420 Louis!' The term was one of many invented by the group, but it was the one that caught on. ``It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like `Do you have any?' or `Do I look stoned?' ' he said. ``Parents and teachers wouldn't know what we were talking about.' The term took root, and flourished, and spread beyond San Rafael with the assistance of the Grateful Dead and their dedicated cohort of pot-smoking fans. The Waldos decided to assert their claim to the history of the term after decades of watching it spread, mutate and be appropriated by commercial interests. The Waldos contacted Hager, and presented him with evidence of 420's history, primarily a collection of postmarked letters from the early '70s with lots of mention of 420. They also started a Web site, waldo420.com. ``We have proof, we were the first,' Waldo Steve said. ``I mean, it's not like we wrote a book or invented anything. We just came up with a phrase. But it's kind of an honor that this emanated from San Rafael.'" Maria Alicia Gaura for the San Francisco Chronicle, 4/20/00 p. A19; and thanks to Noah Cole for the submission
There are a variety of other explanations, all much more interesting than "police code", and many plausible. Some are more likely uses of the 420/hemp connection rather than sources of it, such as the score for the football game in Fast Times at Ridgement High, 42-0.
Known Myths: It isn't police code (see above). There are 315 chemicals in marijuana, not 420. And although tea time in Amsterdam is rumored to be 4:20, it is actually 5:30 (Gerhard den Hollander).
Sixties Songs: For instance, Bob Dylan's famous "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" is a possible reference, or source -- 12x35=420. And Stephen Stills wrote (and Crosby Stills Nash & Young performed) a song "4+20" (first recorded 7/16/69, released on Deja Vu 3/11/70) about an 84-year-old poverty-stricken man who started and finished with nothing. (Thanks to Sherry Keel 12/6/98.) Dylan aslo mentions "4 and 20 windows" in "The Balland of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (on John Wesley Harding).
Older Verse: But 420 in poetry is older than that - Greg Keller notes the old nursery rhyme line, "four and twenty black birds baked in a pie". Revelation 5:14 (in the King James Version of the Christian Bible) reads, "And the four beasts said 'A-Men.' And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever." (Travis Spurley 2/15/99) And in Midnight's_Children, Salman Rushdie wrote, "Inevitably, a number of these children failed to survive. Malnutrition, disease and the misfortunes of everyday life had accounted for no less than four hundred and twenty of them by the time I became conscious of their existence; although it is possible to hypothesize that these deaths, too, had their purpose, since 420 has been, since time immemorial, the number associated with fraud, deception and trickery." (Comet 2/14/98) Comet's "best guess is that this refers to something in Indian mythology or numerology, since the book is set in India and frequently involves Indian history, culture, and religion. Given the high interest in Eastern religion among the phish/dead community, this seems a likely origin of 420's current significance."
Temporal Significance: "Hands on analog clock at 4:20 look like position of doobie dangling from mouth" "Larry in Tuscan" and Alex Mack 5/19/99). Disruptive students are out of detention and safetly away from school by 4:20, also rumored to be "the time that you should dose to be peaking when the Dead went on stage" Hart. "The Waldos" were a group of teens back in the 70's that lived in San Rafael, CA. 420 was the way they talked about pot in front of teachers, non-smoking family members etc. Also it was the time of day they could just go relax, and get baked." ("PhunkCellar") Jamaicans purportedly "worked till 4 then walked home then lit up. They would talk 420 like our parents talked about after 5. That's when partying began" "Larry in Tuscan"). Albert (not Abbie) Hofmann supposedly first encountered LSD at 4:20 p.m. on 4/19/1943 (Bart Coleman citing Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens, recommended by Mickey Hart in Planet Drum). Surrealist painter Miro was born April 20, 1893. And www.filmspeed.com says the propoganda film Reefer Madness has a copyright date of April 20, 1936 (i.e. 4/20). (Patrick Woolford)
Misc: Could be that it comes from hydroponics, the practice of cultivating plants in water often used by indoor marijuana cultivators, since 4 is used for H on a calculator (420/H20). (Nick Lowe 3/30/00) The number 80 (eight) is "quatre vingt" (pronounced "cah-truh vahn"), meaning "four (times} twenty". Dan Nijjar 1/27/00 (No connection yet between the number 80 and pot. A quarter pound is roughly 120 grams, rounding quarter-ounces to 7.5.) The titanic was supposed to arrive 4/20/1912. (Thanks to RB.) Perhaps the heavy use of vt420 terminals in the Berkeley area is to blame? (BTW, 420 in binary code is 110100100.)
Now there's a 420 Pale Ale. One of the late-97/early-98 "Got Milk" ads featured a character eating cookies without milk and then passing a sign that reads "Next Rest Area 420 miles" (as Ross Bruning). Reportedly, all of the clocks in the movie Pulp Fiction are stuck on 4:20. Shirts with the number 420 on the red-and-blue interstate highway shield (Interstate 420?) have show up on the sitcom Will and Grace (Paul Risenhoover 5/14/99) and in several videos. UPS' labelling software has a "420 postal code" legend for next-day/2-day deliveries (which is how Phish tickets are sent). (Jack Lebowitz 10/3/98) MTV's 1997 Viewer's Choice Award (for the MTV Video Awards) was decided by calls to 1-800-420-4MTV. And by May of 1998, the number was appearing in so many ads (eg Copenhagen 5/14/98 Rolling Stone p54, Corvette p55 5/98 Car & Driver) that its presence is presumed to be intentional. Many songs are around 4 minutes 20 seconds long (since many songs fall between 2:30 and 5:30), including for example Pink Floyd's "A Great Day for Freedom" (on The Division Bell, 1994), the Foo Fighters' "My Hero", and "Smokin'" from Boston's first album. "There have also been some 420 references on The Simpsons. In the re-run episode aired on April 20th, 1999 at a special time (probably in honor of those college students staying in the holiday spirit ;-), Homer mentions to Flanders that Barney's birthday is April 20th. Also, the jackpot sign in one part of the casino says $420,000. There are a couple less concrete ones, but these two have to be legit, especially since they decided to air THAT particular episode on 4/20/99." (Submitted by Matt Meehan 4/21/99) And (as of Fall '99) the 60 free minutes that Working Assets Long Distance offers, at the 7 cents per minute rate, is $4.20 free. There's even a band named 420, and another names . In the first fifteen pages of Karel Capek's novel War with the Newts, a man diving under wonder stayed down for four minutes and twenty seconds. Grant Garstka 1/6/00 At the suggested retail price ($3.96) and Michigan (6%) sales tax, a deck of Uno cards costs $4.20. Nic Boris 4:20 marks the first downbeat of the drums in Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway to Heaven." (Dan Harris) The bill authorizing force after the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11/01 passed 420 to 1, and news reports in following months noted many times that there are (or were then, anyway) 420 airports in the U.S. Allan Morris And don't forget that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, macabely "celebrated" (or at least referenced) via the Columbine High School shootings.