A blunt history of 4/20 and the evolution of pot propaganda
By Jessica Berget, Opinions Editor
It goes by many names: Pot, cannabis, the jazz cabbage, wacky tobaccy—but there is only one day in the year dedicated to celebrating weed, its culture, and its community; April 20. Otherwise known to smokers and non-smokers alike as 4/20.
This Friday, Vancouver will be hosting its 23rd annual 4/20 Protest and Farmer’s Market. What originally began as a protest in 1995 has since exploded into one of Vancouver’s largest celebrations. An estimated 35,000 attended last year’s festivities, and with cannabis finally being legalized in Canada this summer (one of the only promises that Trudeau actually kept, but that’s beside the point), this is sure to inspire an even bigger turn-out (or should I say burn-out) at this year’s event.
The origins of the term and speculations as to why 4/20 is so heavily associated with cannabis have been hazy and subject to fabrication. Some have said that it was once a police code for weed-smoking in progress, or that it is the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, or has something to do with Hitler’s birthday. In reality, the number’s origin story and its relevance to pot is much more innocent than a police code, a famous singer’s death, or a genocidal dictator. It started with a group of pot-smoking teenagers who just really liked The Grateful Dead.
Now let’s go back, and I mean all the waaay back, to the 1970s. In California’s San Rafael high school, a group of teenagers who referred to themselves as “The Waldos” met up every day after school to spark up at 4:20 p.m. at their location of choice, which was—as the name implies—a wall outside of their school. Being big fans of The Grateful Dead, they coined the term “4/20” from their meet-ups and began popularizing it as a code for smoking pot among the Dead community, and boy did it catch on. None of them ever imagined that it would one day be the most popular term and time for smoking in the cannabis subculture.
Although the term “4/20” was conceived about 50 years ago, it wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that it would become a local celebration/protest to the laws that made the substance illegal. The first-ever celebration in Vancouver started in Victory Park, when Hemp BC store owner and cannabis activist Marc Emery was asked by his employees if they could host a day-long protest rally to celebrate, smoke cannabis, and appeal for legalization. His response? “We can’t just smoke pot all day. That’s decadent. No, you can’t do it.”
But smoke pot all day they did, and it was a huge hit. Over 200 people showed up on the day of April 20, 1995 to the first ever 4/20 celebration. About 500 people came the next year, and at least 1,000 in 1997 when the party was moved to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Since then, thanks to media coverage and evolving social stigmas, 4/20 has only gotten more popular, and undoubtedly smokier.
Although social perceptions of marijuana has changed, stigmas still exist. Laws tend to reflect what society deems good or bad, and since weed has been illegal for so long—and continues to be illegal in many countries—people still think of it as a seriously harmful drug.
Now, let’s weed out the root of the problem. When marijuana came to the US, society’s animosity towards cannabis emanated from racism and prejudice against the people who used it. Pot users were seen as criminals that would steal, rape, and murder while under the influence of the drug. The idea that people would carry out these acts as a result of smoking marijuana was something that was widely accepted back then, hence the term “reefer madness.” Added focus on the adverse health effects also served to alienate people from the drug.
By the ’60s the war on cannabis was in full swing and because of it, weed has a bad reputation of being a dangerous drug, a warning that still rings in the ears of nearly every generation. It’s worth noting that although the existence of adverse health effects with weed is indisputable, alcohol and tobacco, two legal substances, are scientifically proven to do far greater damage to one’s health.
People continue to refer to marijuana as a “gateway drug,” linking it to harsher narcotics such as cocaine and heroin. In fact, it is still classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic alongside heroin and LSD because of its supposed high potential for abuse and addiction. However, anyone who has ever smoked marijuana knows that these drugs are incomparable, but because of misinformation, fear, and propaganda, people simply don’t acknowledge this.
British Columbia is the second-most weed-smoking province in Canada (first place goes to Nova Scotia). Despite this, smoking marijuana is still very much stigmatized in Canadian society. People who smoke weed, whether it be for medicinal, social, or casual purposes, are referred to as “stoners,” a word ripe with negative connotations that is often associated with being lazy, unproductive, or degenerative. While society’s view of the drug is better than it was years ago—thanks to the more widespread distribution of accurate information about the herb and increased legalization—the stigmas continue to linger, but they are getting better, and we know this because pot smoking is more popular than ever before.
Marijuana use in Canada has doubled in the last 30 years. It is now more popular amongst teenagers than smoking cigarettes. Gen Z is said to be the generation to destroy Facebook, and it may also be the generation to tear apart the pot-smoking stigma. It has also become a norm with millennials as well; housing rentals listings and Tinder profiles with “4/20-friendly” in the descriptions attest to this. Television and films have also helped to break the stigma with popular films like Pineapple Express and shows like Broad City and Workaholics where weed usage is prevalent but not a significant factor in the plot. How far we have come when comparing these shows with Reefer Madness, an anti-pot film made in 1936.
In terms of popularity, 20 per cent of adults admitted having smoked weed before, but 30 per cent say they’d do it once it’s legalized, according to a poll by CBC. This shows that legalizing marijuana is the first step to ending the stigmas that surround it. Despite the prejudice against marijuana, negative opinions concerning the drug continue to shift and evolve as more countries begin legalizing its usage. With more scientific research and education, the stigma will hopefully be nonexistent one day, and people will be able to “4/20” in peace.