Initially, the phrase “420 Louis” was a code — a reference
to the time of day the Waldos would meet at a statue of chemist
Louis Pasteur after school. Their agenda: to search Point Reyes
for a crop of marijuana marked on a map they’d been given by
a friend’s brother in the U. S. Coast Guard.
While the Waldos — Dave Reddix, Larry Schwartz, Steve
Capper, Mark Gravitch and Jeffrey Noel — never found their
bounty of bud, the term “420” stuck. It became an easy way
to refer to marijuana without parents or teachers being the
wiser, which was fantastic for the group, as smoking pot was
part of nearly everything they did.
Now, almost 50 years later, Reddix and Capper are still
marveling at the way their little inside joke has spread
around the globe. Seated in Capper’s Sleepy Hollow home,
they review the latest traces of their unexpected legacy.
For starters, there’s H.R. 420 — a bill recently introduced in Congress by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.
Officially known as the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol
Act,” the legislation seeks to build on a mounting public
outcry calling for cannabis to be removed from the federal
Controlled Substances Act.
Capper and Reddix believe that step could help many
unjustly incarcerated individuals go free, but they acknowl-
edge such efforts remain controversial within the larger
cannabis community. “We’re not political,” Capper says.
“We’re not one side or the other.”
Another recent 420 reference comes courtesy of Tesla
founder Elon Musk. “It was funny to watch him get in trou-
ble for saying that the stock price would be evaluated at $420
a share,” Capper says. “He did it to impress his girlfriend,
who likes to smoke out, and then all of a sudden he was in
trouble with the [Securities and Exchange Commission].”
Musk’s misstep isn’t the biggest instance of 420 enter-
ing the zeitgeist. That would be the unofficial adoption of
April 20 as a high holiday for marijuana worldwide. In San
Francisco, thousands gather on this date each year at Golden
Gate Park’s “Hippie Hill” to light up in unison when the
clock strikes 4: 20 p.m. Similar celebrations large and small
happen every where from Vancouver to Amsterdam.
No one in the group is entirely sure just how the number
leapfrogged their circle to become something so massive.
Reddix notes that his brother Patrick Reddix was close
friends with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, even managing two of the musician’s side bands, which almost certainly
helped: in 1990, a flier for a Dead show in Oakland made
ample use of the term and found its way to the offices of High
Times, which published the first article investigating the
origins of the phrase.
Capper first realized just how big 420 was getting when
fellow Waldo Larry Schwartz phoned him in 1997. “Larry
called me up one day. He said, ‘Steve, it’s every where. There
are T-shirts and hats. Everybody is capitalizing on it.’ ”
In 1998, the Waldos contacted High Times in hopes of
setting the record straight, so to speak.
Their evidence was compelling. Among the keepsakes
(currently stored in a bank vault) they offered as proof of
provenance was a postmarked letter from Reddix to Capper
mentioning 420 in the early 1970s. There’s also a 420 flag a
friend of the Waldos made for them in arts-and-crafts class
at San Rafael High.
Reddix says the Waldos have little interest in benefiting
financially as 420’s creators; they just want proper credit.
Besides, while the number’s improbable popularity has been
a wild ride, it’s only one of countless signifiers of the gang’s
mischievous days. “It’s totally secondary,” he says. “When
Most noteworthy is the unofficial
adoption of April 20 as a
high holiday for marijuana.
Marin County has never suffered from a lack of celebrity residents.
Over the years figures like Metallica’s James Hetfield, actor Robin Williams,
and novelist Isabel Allende have all lived here. Yet in addition to the writers,
musicians and film stars, Marin has been home to another set of famous folks.
They haven’t starred in movies or written hit singles, but the five friends known
as the Waldos have become counterculture phenoms, thanks to a slang term
they invented as students at San Rafael High School in 1971.