4/20’s viral legacy

How Kinko’s and an anonymous Deadhead made 4/20 common knowledge

Before shares, before retweets, before “viral content” dominated the internet, a simple message spread out of control.

A hand-drawn, photocopied flier was 4/20’s patient zero, and helped spawn worldwide consciousness of a magic number to denote pot smoking in just a few short years.

And to this day, nobody knows — or can remember — who made the damn thing.

Zoooma/Flickr 420 spread in a way similar to acid: hand-written notes.

420 spread in a way similar to acid: hand-written notes.

It was New Year’s, 1990. The Grateful Dead were at home in the Bay Area, playing a string of shows at the Oakland Coliseum. Rick Pfrommer was there manning the Cannabis Action Network booth at Shakedown Street — the name for the area where stickers, drugs, and all manner of banter was traded before and after shows — when a mysterious figure shoved a piece of paper in his hands.

“It was this little half-page flier, and it talked about this thing, ‘420,’” said Pfrommer, who is now head purchaser over at Harborside Health Center, not far from the Coliseum. The flier was combination truth and myth: It mentioned the Waldos, it mentioned meeting at Bolinas Ridge on Mount Tamalpais to smoke weed at 4:20 p.m. — and it also mentioned that 420 was police code for “cannabis smoking in progress.”

The last bit was untrue. It didn’t matter. A never-before-heard-of phrase was on its way to the lexicon.

“We got a hold of it. And we loved it,” said Debby Goldsberry, another Cannabis Action Network veteran.

The flier went on the road with the Dead and the CAN, who handed it to High Times editor Steve Bloom. Bloom put “420” in the magazine, and the flier was put in the hands of countless Deadheads coast-to-coast.

“Tens of thousands” of copies of the flier were handed out in 150 different cities, Pfrommer told SF Evergreen, a nationwide grassroots information campaign funded — unwittingly — by Kinko’s.

Copy machines at that time used “digital counter units” that took note of how many copies you made. Copiers wouldn’t work without them. Somehow, a counter unit was “liberated” by CAN members.

“We would go in there and pay them for 100 copies, and then plug in our counter, and run off several thousand copies,” Pfrommer recalled. “That was Kinko’s contribution to cannabis legalization — they played a significant role in the liberation of the cannabis plant.”

As for the anonymous Deadhead who made the flyer? He may have been trying to promote the first April 20 gatherings, which at that time were modest affairs of no more than a “couple dozen people” on Mount Tamalpais’s Bolinas Ridge, according to journalist Steven Hager.


Those gatherings started in 1987 or 1988, and ended in the early 1990s — thanks again to the flier, which attracted the notice of police, Hager tells us.

1990 was also the year “4/20”-related merchandise ended up on tour with the Dead. That helped spread the word, and may have contributed to the flier — but another band helped make April 20 the mass holiday it is today: the Long Beach Dub All-Stars.

In 1997, Goldsberry, who had been promoting free concerts in Golden Gate Park, was approached by a manager for the band — comprised of former members of Sublime — to see if the band could headline a benefit show for the Cannabis Action Network.

“They said we’d like to do an event on April 20th,” she recalled. “We said, ‘On 4/20?’ ‘Hell yeah,’” they said.

For five years, shows were played on April 20 at the Maritime Hall on Front Street before its run as a music venue ended in 2001.

By that time, small, casual gatherings in Golden Gate Park had slowly grown big. That was the momentum for the five-digit gatherings we see today.

Which may have never happened if it weren’t for a pamphleteering Deadhead. And lots and lots of copier toner.