Origins of 420

It’s 1971.  A crew of friends from San Rafael High School, who called themselves the Waldos, planned to meet at the Louis Pasteur sculpture on campus at 4:20pm.  Their plan, sounding something like the film The Goonies, was to follow a supposed map which led to an abandoned marijuana crop.  The code word:  4:20 Louis.  They gave up after a couple of searches, but the code word 420 stuck, and it became the Waldos’ parlance of choice to signal “let’s smoke.”

Minnie the Moocher with Cab Calloway
Watch Minnie the Moocher with Cab Calloway

It was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that cannabis had made a strong cultural comeback.

The last time a citizen could smoke and have the authorities not mind was in the 1930’s.

During Prohibition, with alcohol unavailable, marijuana became an alternative for many, especially in the jazz scene.

In fact, cannabis would soon became the subject of popular songs, like when Cab Calloway sang,

Have you ever met that funny reefer man?
If he said he walks the ocean, any time he takes the notion, then you know your talkin’ to reefer man.

Reefer man advocate Cab Calloway soon paired with innovative animator Max Fleischer to produce one of the earliest hand drawn rotoscope animations, and starred Betty Boop and a walrus that dances in a style mysteriously like Cab.

I'll Be Glad when You're Dead You Rascal, You - 1930's
Watch I’ll Be Glad when You’re Dead You Rascal, You – 1930’s

Is it any wonder that the first alternative comic book artists like R. Crumb and Kim Deitch give immense credit to Max Fleischer, animator of Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Bimbo the Dog, Popeye, and Superman?

Fleischer’s cartoons definitely have a surreal feel about them, lending themselves to psychedelic inspiration.

Max Fleischer later paired Betty Boop with viper man Louis Armstrong in the mid 1930’s.

Again, Fleischer mixes jazz, live action, and animation to create an innovative, dreamlike world.

Pops or Satchmo, as he was often called, was a lifelong tea head who enjoyed cannabis not just to unwind, but also smoked gage, as he called it, before performances and recording sessions since it consistently fueled his ability to improvise.

Trailer - Marihuana - 1936
Watch the Trailer for Marihuana – 1936

By 1936, the former head of the US Department of Prohibition Harry J. Ainslinger needed something to do.

The relegalization of alcohol three years before in 1933 had made him obsolete.

How could he hope to maintain in his status, prestige, and power as a government secretary?

Ainslinger needed a new boogieman.

The man who in 1930  called worry about  cannabis an “absurd fallacy” was now whipping the country up into a frenzy.

Schlock flimmakers like Dwain Esper saw an opportunity in the moral outrage and produced exploitation films like Marihuana in 1936.

Written with his wife Hildagarde Stadie, Marihuana depicts the downward slope after taking a puff.

Marihuana!
Watch the feature film Marihuana!

Like Reefer Madness, it’s driven by the gateway drug trope, where the first step to hell might as well be the last.

Esper’s Roadshow Attractions would follow up with How to Dress in Front of Your Husband in 1937, and Sex Madness in 1938.

Along with Ainslinger’s Gore Files column in The American Magazine in which he invented “true stories” of madness and violence brought about by marijuana, invariably with racial overtones, it was all enough to convince Congress to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibiting the production of all hemp and cannabis outright.

But Ainslinger’s victory was short lived.

Within 5 years, remarkably, the US government was encouraging  American farmers to grow hemp.

Hemp For Victory - 1942
Watch Hemp For Victory – 1942

It was WWII, and hemp was vital to the war effort, an important source of rope, canvas, and uniforms.

Hemp, at that time imported from parts of southeast Asia that were now occupied by Japan, was no longer available.

So the US Department of Agriculture producedHemp for Victory  in 1942.

After the war, Hemp for Victory sank into obscurity and was thought to be lost, or never even existed, according to USDA.

The case was settled when Jack Herer and friends donated a rediscovered copy of it to the Library of Congress in 1989.

As Ainslinger’s power had waned by the 1950’s, hucksters on moral crusades like Sid Davis arose to take up the struggle.

The Terrible Truth - 1950
Watch The Terrible Truth – 1950

Davis, a former stand-in for John Wayne, would produce at least 150 training and scare films aimed at school children and local authorities including the infamous Boys Beware, Girls Beware, Gang Boy, and The Dangerous Stranger.

In The Terrible Truth, Davis portrays how the slippery slope of cannabis inevitably leads to heroin.

Even worse, marijuana is part of a communist  conspiracy intent on “promoting drug traffic in the United States to undermine national morale.”

Not intended for public view, Subject: Narcotics, was produced in 1951, was  a training film for LA vice squad officers.

The  common theme of conflating cannabis with hard drugs helped to perpetuate the anti-drug hysteria.

Subject Narcotics - 1951
Watch Subject Narcotics – 1951

In truth, just a few miles away from police headquarters, smoking pot was still a common practice.

James Gardner, Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Peter Sellars, James Coburn, Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, Steve McQueen, Rodney Dangerfield – were all frequent tokers, and admittedly so

By the 1960’s, as the baby boomer generation came of age, the tide in attitudes towards cannabis again began to change.

The counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s gave cannabis new prominence.

Which brings us back to 1971 and the birth of the Waldos.

 

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