High Times in San Rafael: The true story of “4:20,” the Waldos & the Bebes

By on April 20, 2016

We don’t really know who was the first to coin the term “4:20” as a euphemism for all-things marijuana: it was either a group of stoner high school athletes who called themselves the Waldos, or another competing group of stoner athletes, called the Bebes.

Either way, have a look at this 2002 interview where former High Times editor-in-chief Steven Hager attempts to explain the origins and meaning of “4:20″ to a rather clueless “ABC News” anchor.

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Hager: “In 1971, six students at San Rafael High School in Marin County, California, invented it… and it just sort of spread through the Grateful Dead underground for many years, and then High Times discovered it, and then once we started publicizing it, it really went global.”

Okay, let’s go back to the beginning: one day in the fall of 1971, a group of stoner student athletes calling themselves the Waldos — because they often met and hung out together at a wall, located outside the school — decided to meet one day at 4:20pm, at a statue of Louis Pasteur (a rather alien-looking granite and steel work of art by Beniamino Bufano, dating back to 1937) at the entrance to the parking lot at San Rafael High School.

Since a few of the Waldos had football practice that occupied their time for an hour or so, after their last class ended at 3pm, “4:20″ became the approximate time when they could all meet up.

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Louis Pasteur

The reason they were meeting was because one of the Waldos had a hand-drawn treasure map which provided the location of a patch of marijuana plants that his cousin, who was in the Coast Guard, had planted in the forest near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station (since it was harvest time, and he was unable to get back to the patch — he claimed that a superior officer was on to him, and wouldn’t let him leave the station — he passed along the pot patch map to his cousin).

The idea was that the Waldos were going to pile into one of their cars (possibly a ’66 Chevy Impala) and head out to see if they could find the plant patch. They did this often, calling these trips out into the woods on Point Reyes Pennisula, and up on Mt. Tam (full name: Mount Tamalpais) their “safaris” and they were excited about the road adventure that lay ahead, so that day, whenever they’d cross paths in the hallways at school, they’d give a little nod and say “4:20, Louis!” to each other, to remind each other of their after-school appointment.

(They later dropped the use of “Louis!,” and, also, for this blog, we’re going to stick to the digital clock reading of “4:20″ for the sake of clarity, except for when it’s spelled differently in direct quotes).

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Gilbert Munger’s Mount Tamalpais from San Rafael (1870)

Apparently their attempts to locate the pot patch were unsuccessful, but the Waldos kept looking for the hidden crop, and they kept using “4:20″ as their codeword. Their parents and teachers didn’t have any idea what it meant for quite a while, but, eventually, others at the high school began using the term “4:20″ as kind of a way to let each other know to meet after school in order to smoke pot together, sometimes atop nearby Mt. Tam.

Later, the numbers four-twenty together could be used not only to designate a time but also a date, as in April 20th (hey, that’s today!) Eventually it became shorthand for anything marijuana-related, and simply saying the numbers could mean anything, like “Do you have any?” or even”Do I look stoned?”

This seems like a good place to mention that some of the Waldos were connected to the Grateful Dead — one of their fathers took care of real estate for the Dead, while another’s older brother, Patrick, managed a Dead sideband, Too Loose, and was good friends with Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who played in the side band (the band also featured David Crosby — who has a song called “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” on his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name, from 1971 –and guitarist Terry Haggerty).

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The Waldos would often drop by the Dead’s rehearsal space on Front Street in San Rafael to hang out and watch the band play, and they would also get to go backstage at the Dead’s shows at venues like Winterland, in San Francisco.

In May of 1991, the story of “4:20″ was expanded to included a story told by Steven Bloom — a reporter for High Times magazine, and now the publisher of Celebstoner.com and co-author of Pot Culture — who added that he’d heard the numbers actually “started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress,” and perhaps Bloom was told this by someone who was not an original Waldo, but since it was repeated in High Times, it became part of the mystique, and accepted as the truth, but it’s incorrect. In the telling of these stories Steve Bloom often claims to have been one of the original Waldos, but we’re not sure about that.

Bloom says that he heard and saw the term for the first time in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert, during Christmas week in Oakland, California, in 1990, when an anonymous stoner handed him a flyer, which he kept for years in an archive at High Times, and later forwarded (as “proof”) to the Huffington Post.

“We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais,” read the message on the flyer.

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In 1967, the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival was an event held June 10 and 11th, 1967 at the 4,000 seat Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, high on the south face of Mt. Tamalpais, was attended by at least 36,000 people during the two-day concert and fair. It became a prototype for large scale multi-act outdoor rock festivals.

Obviously, as the Grateful Dead toured the globe through the ’70s and ’80s, playing hundreds of shows a year, it’s fairly easy to see how the usage of “4:20″ spread though the Dead underground, but once it appeared in the pages of High Times, in the early 90s, it really started to pick, and started to spread from the underground to the mainstream. One example of this, for instance, all of the clocks in Quentin Tarantino’s 1993 film Pulp Fiction, for instance, are set to “4:20.” Even today, you can see examples of its use on Craig’s List postings when fellow smokers search for “420 friendly” roommates.

“I started incorporating it into everything we were doing,” High Times editor Steve Hager told the Huffington Post in 1998. “I started doing all these big events – the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup – and we built everything around 420. The publicity that High Times gave it is what made it an international thing. Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture. But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.”

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A Waldos 420 flag from 1972 made by a classmate of the Waldos’ at San Rafael High School, at a bank vault in San Francisco.

Hager, by the way, became editor of High Times in 1988, and sometime in the early ’90s, High Times wisely purchased the web domain 420.com.

In 1997, the Waldos decided to set the record straight and got in touch with reporter Bloom at High Times. “They said, ‘The fact is, there is no 420 [police] code in California. You guys ever look it up?'”

Bloom had to admit that no, he had never looked it up. Hager then flew out to San Rafael, met the Waldos, examined their evidence, spoke with others in town, and concluded they were telling the truth.

“No one’s ever been able to come up with any use of 420 that predates the 1971 usage, which they had established. So unless somebody can come up with something that predates them, then I don’t think anybody’s going to get credit for it other than them,” he says.

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The Freedom Fighters were a marijuana legalization group started by High Times magazine’s Steven Hager in 1987. They famously marched into marijuana rallies dressed in psychedelic Colonial-style outfits while playing drums, injecting life into what had become a dying legalization movement, and forged a new generation of activists while creating a number of events around the country, the largest of which is the Boston Freedom Rally, which drew 100,000 people to Boston Common in the 1990s.

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The Bebe

Okay, so here’s the other version of the “4:20″ story: In October of 2012, another group came forward claiming to have originated the term “4:20,” calling themselves the Bebes. Their spokesman, Brad Bann, aka “The Bebe, ” says he had doubts from the start as something didn’t make sense about the Waldos story, saying that it actually started a year earlier, in 1970, with his group of stoner athlete pals who called themselves “The Bebes.”

They lived near a golf course, called “Peacock Gap,” in San Rafael, California. Bann says that he and his pals called the other group of stoners “The Waldos,” because, well, they weren’t too athletic, and pretty were uncoordinated, awkward and goofy.

But, he says, calling someone a “Waldo” didn’t even originate with him — the Bebe was just repeating something he heard comedian Buddy Hackett say to fellow comedian Shecky Green on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

The Bebe says that one of the Waldos wrote a personal letter to comedian Green, who he learned was living in the Palm Springs area at the time, asking him to elaborate. Shecky wrote back a letter explaining that Buddy would call him “a Waldo,” as an odd and goofy person, and that Buddy got that from the cartoon series Mr. Magoo.

Still with us? Apparently, cartoon character Mr. Magoo’s odd and awkward nephew was Waldo, and so Hackett used it as a kind of insulting name for Shecky Green, and that’s why the Bebe and his pals called the group who hung out at the wall outside of school “Waldos,” not because of the wall, but because they were odd and awkward like Magoo’s nephew.

The Bebe and one of the other Bebes, named “Bone Boy,” sent their claim about the term’s origin to High Times, in 2003, after someone sent them the article they did on “4:20″ and the Waldos, but they never received a reply.

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As for the veracity of their claim, well, pick a side, but we’re sticking with the Waldos’ story. As for the original Waldos, they’re not all sitting around smoking pot in the afternoon anymore. One is a credit analyst, another is a head of marketing for a Napa Valley winery, another is in printing and graphics, and another works for a roofing and gutter company.

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The original Waldos seen just a few years ago: Jeff, Dave, Steve, Larry and Mark

Hager launched the film Beat Street, invented the Cannabis Cup, and authored 30 books. He is a cannabis and counterculture activist, journalist, filmmaker and event producer. He edits Abakus magazine, a cannabis guide to Aspen, Colorado. He stepped down from his lofty perch at High Times in 2013, after 26 years, as their editor-in-chief.

Today, High Times’ editor-in-chief is Dan Skye, a long-time staff member and contributing photographer.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.