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The Original 420 Events Took Place in San Francisco

Cannabis Action Network's 1999 4:20 Party Flyer

Cannabis Action Network’s 4/20 poster for 1999 event (illustration by Steve Marcus)

I first heard about 420 in 1990, at a Grateful Dead show at the Oakland Coliseum, when a hippie breezed by our Cannabis Action Network (CAN) booth giving out fliers. They had a scrawny marijuana leaf drawn next to “420” and “Wake’n’Bake,” surrounding a proclamation asking everyone to “Smoke Pot at at 4:20.” The CAN crew quickly figured out it was 4:20 somewhere, more than 24 times a day, and got busy spreading the news to others.

From left: Ed Rosenthal, Debby Goldsberry and Steve Bloom at the 1994 Cannabis Action Network festival in Golden Gate Park.

CAN was on the road back then, driving from city to city hosting Hemp Tour events and rolling with big festivals like Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. and Warped. This was pre-Internet, so we simply copied that flier and passed it out along the way. Each day at 4:20, in whatever time zone we were in, the crew would break out pipes, joints and bongs, knowing that people everywhere were joining us in solidarity. It was a great feeling to imagine all the others celebrating at the same time.

The original flier claimed 420 was a police code for pot-smoking in progress in California, starting a myth that still lingers today. It’s not; we’ve since learned that a bunch of students at San Rafael High School in Marin County started the phenomenon in the early 1970s, using 420 as their code to meet after school to get stoned. Ultimately, that group of friends, known as the Waldos, was credited with coining the term 420. They passed it around through Deadhead circles in the Bay Area until the 420 fliers mysteriously appeared on Shakedown Street at the Oakland Coliseum shows that closed out 1990.

CAN set up a national office in Berkeley in 1992. As the years went by, we kept spreading the message of 420. It was still rare enough to be subversive.

Each day at 4:20, in whatever time zone we were in, the crew would break out pipes, joints and bongs, knowing that people everywhere were joining us in solidarity.

About nine months after Sublime’s lead singer Brad Nowell tragically died in 1996, I received a phone call was from the band’s manager. The remaining members of Sublime wanted to perform in San Francisco on 4/20 in 1997 both as a tribute to their fallen bandmate and to launch their new group, the Long Beach Dub Allstars.

CAN was experienced at organizing marijuana-themed events in San Francisco. We’d produced a number of free outdoor events, mostly in Golden Gate Park, the biggest of which, in 1994, featured Fishbone, Total Devastation and Los Marijuanos at the park’s famed bandshell. Nearly 30,000 people gathered that day, including Flea and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were in town playing a show.

Long Beach Dub Allstars (photo by Josh Coffman)

I said yes right away to produce the Long Beach Dub Allstars 4/20 show. Now we needed a venue, so I called Boots Hughston, who owned San Francisco’s hippie haven, the Maritime Hall. I remember trying to be discreet about the fact that we wanted to hold a big marijuana event at his venue. But when I asked about renting the Hall on April 20, he replied, “Hell yeah! That’s 4/20.”

The party that followed was legendary. Whne the doors opened at 3 pm, there were hundreds of people lined up outside waiting to get in. By 4:20, the place was, quite literally, fully lit. From the cannabis café in the basement to vendors in the middle room to music in the Union Hall ballroom upstairs, the event was three floors high. It ended, appropriately, at 4:20 am.

We held the 4/20 party at Maritime Hall for the next four years, until the venue closed in 2001.

The CAN booth at an event in the ’90s

Our final 4/20 event in San Francisco took place in 2002. It was billed as the National NORML conference’s after-party. Several hundred conference attendees, along with a handful of other people, bought tickets in advance. But there was a huge problem. The nightclub we booked was raided on April 19, after the DJ allegedly sold drugs to a state Alcohol Beverage Control officer. The venue owners promptly cancelled our event, which was homeless until the fearless attorneys at San Francisco’s Pier 5 Law Offices stepped in and offered their space for the 4/20 revelers.

We figured if anything went wrong, at least there would be plenty of lawyers around to help. More than 200 people descended on Pier 5, filling nearly every nook and cranny of the office. Pot smoke fogged the air and good food and drinks abounded. The place was so crowded it was hard to move, but the show had to go on.

So when the 35-piece marching band that had been scheduled to perform at the club arrived, there was nowhere to go but up. The flag twirlers climbed the file cabinets and sundry instrumentalists jumped atop desks. The drummers were everywhere and the crowd went wild. It was a perfect 420 and a great way to end that era.

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