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A person wearing protective mask and gloves lights a joint with a lighter.
4/20, the unofficial holiday for celebrating marijuana, is typically celebrated with large rallies and fairs across the country that now won’t happen given the coronavirus pandemic.
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4/20 in the age of coronavirus, explained

What is 4/20? Why is it on April 20? How are marijuana legalization and the coronavirus pandemic changing it? Here are some answers.

In normal times, April 20 would be 4/20, the unofficial holiday for celebrating marijuana. People would be preparing to rally near state capitols, in concerts, and at huge fairs to fill the air with thick, pungent smoke.

But April 20 this year, on Monday, doesn’t come during normal times. With a coronavirus pandemic still going, much of the United States and the rest of the world are staying at home as much as possible to avoid the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That means the large crowds and rallies that have previously taken place in Denver, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and many other places around the world are not going to happen.

Yet 4/20 will go on. Before the big day, I got emails from marijuana companies asking, for example, if I was “throwing a virtual 4/20 smoke sesh.” (No, I’m not.) One such company advertised “awesome marijuana-inspired Zoom backgrounds so you can tune in and drop out, immersing yourself fully in the 4/20 experience” — in reference to the backgrounds that can be made for the video conferencing service, Zoom, used by workplaces globally and, apparently, marijuana users throwing virtual 4/20 parties.

My first reaction to all of this was, “What is this world?” But these ads also speak to the broader commercialization and mainstreaming of pot, and its growing acceptance in new realms of American life, as the drug is legalized in much of the country. That people are creating cannabis-related images for software largely linked to modern workplaces shows how far pot has come from the days when it was mostly associated with hippies and a broader counterculture movement that decried greed, corporate influences, and, really, all things mainstream.

As marijuana is legalized in more states and countries, that kind of shift will continue, with more businesses trying to take advantage of the commercialization of cannabis and reach a growing base of consumers in a newly legal market.

It’s a big change from what 4/20 originally was.

What is 4/20? And why is it on April 20?

4/20 is, in short, a holiday celebrating marijuana.

Why April 20? There are a few possible explanations for why marijuana enthusiasts’ day of celebration landed on this day, but the real origin remains a bit of a mystery.

Steven Hager, a former editor of the marijuana-focused news outlet High Times, told the New York Times that the holiday came out of a ritual started by a group of high school students in the 1970s. As Hager explained, a group of California teenagers ritualistically smoked marijuana every day at 4:20 pm. The ritual spread, and soon 420 became code for smoking marijuana. Eventually, 420 was converted into 4/20 for calendar purposes, and the day of celebration was born. (A group of Californians published documents giving this theory legitimacy, but it’s unclear if their claims are valid.)

One common belief is that 420 was the California police or penal code for marijuana, but there’s no evidence to support that claim.

A cloud of marijuana smoke hangs over a crowd during a 420 Day celebration in San Francisco, California, on April 20, 2018.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Another theory is that there are 420 active chemicals in marijuana, hence an obvious connection between the drug and the number. But there are more than 500 active ingredients in marijuana, and only about 70 or so are cannabinoids unique to the plant, according to the Dutch Association for Legal Cannabis and Its Constituents as Medicine.

A lesser-known possibility comes from the 1939 short story “In the Walls of Eryx” by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling. The story describes “curious mirage-plants” that seemed fairly similar to marijuana and appeared to get the narrator high at, according to his watch, around 4:20. Since the story is from 1939, it’s perhaps the earliest written link between marijuana and 420.

Whatever its origins, 4/20 has become a massive holiday for cannabis aficionados.

Marijuana legalization is changing 4/20

What 4/20 stands for varies from person to person. Some people just want to get high and have fun. Others see the day as a moment to push for legalization, or celebrate legalization now that more states are adopting it and popular opinion is behind it.

In the 1970s, 4/20 was part of a smaller counterculture movement that embraced marijuana as a symbol to protest against broader systemic problems in the US, like overseas wars and the power of corporations in America. “Marijuana was the way you said you weren’t a suit,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, previously told me.

In recent years, marijuana legalization activists have tried to bring a more formal aspect to the celebration, framing it as a moment to push their political agenda. Organizers for the 2014 Denver rally — during the first year marijuana sales were legal in the state — put out a statement comparing the battle for legal marijuana to “the time when Jews fled from slavery in Egypt,” a moment commemorated in Passover celebrations. “This year’s rally represents the continuing fight for freedom from economic slavery for marginalized members of our community and a rebirth of creative genius that will get us there,” they wrote.

Businesses are also trying to take advantage of the holiday. Eddie Miller, the CEO of Invest in Cannabis, which seeks to bring investment into the marijuana industry, told me in the early years of state-level legalization that his company was trying to build and sponsor major 4/20 gatherings around the country — similar to what other companies, some of which Miller has been involved with, have done with holidays like St. Patrick’s Day.

“Our perspective is 4/20 is a real holiday — no smaller than St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween,” Miller previously told me. “It’s just nobody knows about it yet. And our company is going to let everyone know about it.”

Of course, these kinds of massive celebrations aren’t going to happen — or at least shouldn’t happen — in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic in which everyone is being told to stay home as much as possible to flatten the curve. But that they’d certainly happen if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic speaks to how much 4/20 and broader attitudes toward marijuana have changed.

4/20 is becoming a commercial event

Originally, 4/20 was a counterculture holiday to protest, at least in part, the social and legal stigmas against marijuana. Marijuana legalization undercuts that purpose: As big businesses and corporations begin to grow, sell, and market pot, marijuana is losing its status as a counterculture symbol — and that, Humphreys speculated, could bring the end of the traditional, countercultural 4/20.

“If a corporate marijuana industry adopts 4/20, it would still be a celebrated event, but not with the same countercultural meaning,” Humphreys said. “People celebrated Christmas long before it became an occasion for an orgy of gift-buying and materialist consumption, but the meaning of the holiday for most people was different then than it is now.”

Companies such as Invest in Cannabis admit they’re already leveraging the holiday as another opportunity to promote the industry and its products — much like beer and other alcohol companies now do with St. Patrick’s Day.

“The media is covering 4/20 as a consumer interest story,” Miller of Invest in Cannabis said. “But some portion of the media is covering 4/20 as a call to arms for the industry — so [in 2015] there are multiple competitive business conferences that are happening in Denver, the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and Las Vegas.”

A 4/20 smoke-out in front of the Colorado state capitol.
A 4/20 smoke-out in front of the Colorado State Capitol in 2015.
Joe Amon/Denver Post/Getty Images

The pot industry has also gotten directly involved in 4/20 events. The Cannabis Cup, for example, has become a major event at a selected city’s 4/20 rally, where hundreds of vendors show off their finest marijuana products to tens of thousands of attendees. The event has steadily grown over the years, featuring big concerts from notable musicians like Snoop Dogg, Soja, and 2 Chainz, as well as a wide collection of marijuana businesses as sponsors.

The Cannabis Cup has been only one of many events, which also include comedy shows (like Cheech and Chong), marijuana-friendly speed dating, and trade shows for glass pipes and bongs, offering businesses and celebrities various opportunities to push their products and brands.

Things have changed this year: Due to the coronavirus, the Cannabis Cup, scheduled to take place in Oklahoma, was delayed until May 11 to 15 — and that’s still subject to further delays, depending on how the pandemic rolls on.

Now, that may not mean much to the people who are celebrating 4/20 more traditionally. Some people don’t attend public festivities at all, choosing instead to stay home and enjoy a joint (or more) with their friends. For them, 4/20 remains a more casual affair void of big sponsorships and marketing.

But in public, 4/20 has increasingly become a commercial holiday — with the coronavirus outbreak putting a pause on things for now.

4/20’s shift shows how marijuana legalization will change cannabis

The shift in 4/20 from a counterculture holiday to a more corporate one shows how legalization is changing marijuana.

To many legalizers, this is a sign of their success. Legalization campaigns often adopt the tagline “regulate marijuana like alcohol.” That this is actually happening as the cannabis industry takes a form similar to the alcohol industry is a sign that legalizers are winning.

This has been true even in the middle of a pandemic. Some states, for example, have deemed liquor stores “essential” through their stay-at-home orders and allowed them to stay open during lockdowns. Some of these states have made a similar determination for marijuana stores, allowing them to stay open despite stay-at-home orders. It’s another clear way that marijuana is increasingly treated like alcohol and other legal drugs.

To some drug policy experts and legalizers, though, this is all a cause for alarm. The concern is that a big marijuana industry will, similar to the tobacco and alcohol industries, irresponsibly market its drug to kids or users who already consume the drug excessively — with little care for public health and safety over the desire for profits.

To this end, many drug policy experts see alcohol as a warning, not something to be admired and followed for other drugs. For decades, big alcohol has successfully lobbied lawmakers to block tax increases and regulations on alcohol, all while marketing its product as fun and sexy in television programs, such as the Super Bowl, that are viewed by millions of Americans, including children. Meanwhile, alcohol is linked to 88,000 deaths each year in the US.

If marijuana companies are able to act like the tobacco and alcohol industries have in the past, there’s a good chance they’ll convince more Americans to try or even regularly use marijuana, and some of the heaviest users may use more of the drug. And as these companies increase their profits, they’ll be able to influence lawmakers in a way that could stifle regulations or other policies that curtail cannabis misuse. All of that will likely prove bad for public health.

The situation almost certainly will not be as bad as alcohol, since alcohol is simply more dangerous than marijuana. Pot’s risks, for one, tend to be nonfatal or at least much less fatal than alcohol: addiction and overuse, accidents, nondeadly overdoses that lead to mental anguish and anxiety, and, in rare cases, potentially psychotic episodes. Marijuana has never been definitively linked to any serious ailments — not deadly overdoses or lung disease. And it’s much less likely — around one-tenth as likely, based on data for fatal car crashes — to cause deadly accidents than alcohol.

Given this, the focus for drug policy experts tends to be the risk of addiction and overuse. As Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, has told me, “At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you’ll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer.”

But these risks are still risks. Yet as the marijuana industry grows, it’s likely that the dangers will be issues the industry just doesn’t care much about — and it will market its products excessively for as much profit as possible, even if it means more public health or safety problems along the way.

The grim good news for those concerned with commercialization is that the coronavirus pandemic has forced a temporary halt on some of the commercial activity that could be expected around marijuana this 4/20. The bad news is it’s only a pause as the pandemic plays out — because, as the past few years of 4/20 celebrations show, cannabis really has evolved from a counterculture symbol to another commodity that companies can make a lot of money from.

For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.

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