MAY I interest you in some Aunt Mary? Or perhaps a little baby bhang? No, I can see, you prefer El Diablito. Or bambalacha? Juju? Laughing weed? Doobie, chillum, ganja, blue de Hue, black mo, ding, bud, leaf, Marley, pachalolo? Of course, how could I be so foolish, some rainy day woman? Still not with me? How about some skunk, righteous bush or, let's be perfectly clear, marijuana?

The intimate, hazy compact between pot smokers and their herb has generated a thesaurus of terms for cannabis, rivalled only perhaps by the Eskimos and their supposedly countless words for snow. Now one of those terms has leapt from the bubbling bong of pot subculture and landed in the American mainstream: 420, pronounced four-twenty, has become the banner cry for high school pot smokers and for those campaigning to legalise marijuana.

It can be used as a verb, noun or adjective. One can 420 (smoke pot), be 420ed (have smoked pot and be stoned), or remark that "it's 4.20", even when it is not, as an exhortation to let the smoking commence. In the West Coast bud-hubs of northern California and Oregon, a popular car sticker reads "4.20 - 24-7", encouraging pot smoking every hour of every day. Another goes "It's 4.19 - gotta minute?"

The National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) will hold its annual conference on April 20 (4/20), a day they have christened Stoner's New Year. "We have scheduled the conference to coincide with 4/20," it says, "a date that has become associated in the popular culture as a special day for marijuana smokers. We hope to build on that tradition." NORML also supports a website and newsletter,, and a 420girls site featuring "hundreds of beautiful girls smoking weed".

All over the internet, there are sites selling T-shirts, snowboards and posters with 420 motifs. At the 420 Lounge, a chat-room run by the High Times newsletter, pot smokers can discuss their habit.

The origin of the phrase is obscure. The most common explanation is that it comes from the police code "420", used by officers in California to alert colleagues to a pot-smoking incident. It was then taken up by the Grateful Dead, who popularised it as a term for lighting up. Another theory is that 4.20 was the time that most high school students got back home and lit up. If they smoked at the same time, they believed, it would be impossible for the police to catch them all. A more sinister edge was given to the term in 1999, when two students at Columbine High School in Colorado went on a shooting spree, which left 15 people dead. They chose the day because it was the anniversary of Hitler's death. But high school authorities have since been more concerned about students treating 4/20 as a Saturnalia.

On university campuses across the United States, April 20 is an occasion for dope smoking, nudity and pranks. In America, where it is illegal to buy alcohol until you are 21, pot smoking is far more entrenched in high school life than in Europe. It has spawned an entire culture of art, poetry and films, which teenagers inherited from their baby-boomer parents and fused with the cartoons, videos and music of their own generation.

American high school movies, such as the just-released Dude, Where's My Car, are far more likely to include scenes of pot smoking than drunkenness. Teen pot smoking, however, relies on being subversive. Now that the hairies of the adult hemp movement are bringing 420 into the mainstream, parents will work out what 420 means, and the term will fizzle from use. Sweet Lucy, anyone?

by Philip Delves Broughton
Tuesday 30 January 2001
ISSUE 2076