Haze Of Controversy Surrounds 420

An estimated 5 million Americans will go up in smoke today, and we’re not referring to cigarettes.

April 20 — or 420 (“four-twenty”) as it’s commonly known — has evolved into something far more significant than a random day when marijuana smokers gather to indulge in their illegal hobby.

“Whether you agree or not, 420 is one of the biggest parts of this illicit culture,” said Rick Cusick, associate publisher of High Times magazine, which counts 150,000 people as subscribers. “Inevitably, some of that bleeds over to the mainstream.”

Regardless of its controversial nature, the pot holiday has become a cultural phenomenon that has left no corner of the country untouched – even the Rio Grande Valley.


The term “420” originated at San Rafael High School in 1971 among a group of about a dozen pot-smokers, Cusick said.

The Waldos, as they called themselves, developed it as shorthand for the time of day the group would meet to smoke marijuana.

“Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was prohibition of alcohol, and there were some great code words back then,” he said. “420 has definitely become ours.”

When High Times popularized 420 as a unifying term among its readers, the term – for better or worse – became a touchstone for generations of pot users.


Around the Rio Grande Valley, smoke shops would prefer to stay under the radar and away from any unwarranted run-ins with police throughout the year, but especially on 420.

They’re considered legitimate businesses based on the statute that the products they sell, pipes, rolling papers and other types of accessories, are strictly for tobacco usage.

At nearly every shop signs warn anyone under 18 to stay away and that, above all, any chatter about smokable substances other than tobacco could get you kicked out.

With those ground rules clear, vendors can’t deny April 20 is big business.

“420 is one of our busiest days,” said the manager at Illusionz smoke shop in Edinburg. “It’s a smoker’s holiday, but I don’t know why or what makes it so special. I know a lot of kids have parties and celebrate.”

Though no widely publicized parties have surfaced in South Texas, large festivals are a staple in San Francisco, parts of Colorado and Austin.


Based on independent studies, roughly 25 million people smoke pot in this country, with about 15 million every month Cusick says.

Marijuana, usually smoked as a cigarette (called a joint) or in a pipe or bong, remains the most commonly used illicit drug, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

An estimated 97.8 million Americans 12 or older tried marijuana at least once in their lifetimes – that’s about 39 percent of the country’s population in that age group, the findings show.

Cory Morlock, director of substance abuse program at Tropical Texas Behavioral Health Center in Edinburg declined to comment at press time.

He did say he wasn’t familiar with the 420 code.

Government studies show smoking impairs your judgment, induces memory loss and can lower your chances of becoming a parent.

“I’m a fan of the plant, what can I say?” Cusick said, adding he will be on vacation during the 420 “holiday.” “And over the years it’s been a blessing but something I put away because I do have other priorities.”


And at the end of the day, marijuana is still illegal. Getting caught with the drug could lead to hefty fines and/or time in jail.

It is not out of the ordinary for police departments to be extra alert April 20.

“We know what it means, and some departments will place a little more emphasis on patrol that day,” said officer Danny Elizondo, who leads the community police division at the Weslaco Police Department. “For instance at smoke shops, it’s for tobacco use, but do they really use it for tobacco? You tend to patrol those areas a little bit more or your local parks or even some people driving around smoking in their cars.”

If police find marijuana residue in a pipe or in and around a person’s car he/she can be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, a Class C misdemeanor and fined up to $500. A joint or any usable amount (two ounces or less) will be charged as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable with a $2,000 fine and/or 180 days behind bars. Class A misdemeanors, for being in possession of two to four ounces can lead to a $4,000 fine and/or a year in jail.

“People need to know it’s still against the law,” Elizondo said.

Others believe all of the mainstream attention geared toward this trend only glamorizes such a serious issue.

“I believe, whether through media or what capacity, making it such a a big event takes away from the work we’re trying to do which is to help prevent and stop substance abuse,” said Fito Mercado, program director for Palmer Drug Abuse Program in McAllen, adding that ironically, they are located less than a block from Free Spirits Smoke Shop off of South 10th Street. “A lot of our clients recognize 420 as the smoke out day but for someone battling addiction there’s not one specific day when it comes to addiction.

“Making 420 what it has become is another hurdle we have to fight. We’re not naïve that it’s a problem.”


Aside from your average pot smoker who seeks refuge in a basement or garage and knows every Cheech and Chong movie by heart, there are also those who have spent the last several decades lobbying for the legalization of marijuana.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is one of those people.

The organization, a nonprofit, public-interest, lobby based in Washington D.C., has for more than 30 years provided a voice for those Americans who oppose marijuana prohibition.

Part of their mission statement includes, representing “the interests of the tens of millions of Americans who smoke marijuana responsibly and believe the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana should no longer be a crime.”

Organizations like NORML support the decriminalization policy which removes the consumer from the criminal justice system, St. Pierre said. On 420 in 2006, NORML set a record number of membership applications (780 total) in a single day. (Maybe it was the drop in membership fee, from $35 to $4.20 that helped those numbers).

“This has gone from a goofy cultural phenomenon to the conveyance of this cultural message,” he said. “The idea is to celebrate on 420 but now what are we going to do to change the law to federally decriminalize marijuana? Yeah, this was fun, now let’s get to work.”

Currently, a dozen states and numerous municipalities have enacted versions of marijuana decriminalization, eliminating criminal penalties for minor pot violations, according to a NORML press release.

St. Pierre believes the concept of 420 has matured and the movement will continue to grow by leaps and bounds in the next 10 years.

“420 has become a very potent metaphor that either you know what it means or you’re clueless,” he said. “It’s a very potent three-digit number that more and more people are taking notice of.”

– Article from The Monitor on April 20, 2008.