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4/20’s Viral Legacy

How Kinko’s and an anonymous Deadhead made 4/20 widely known

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

A hand-drawn, photocopied flyer was patient zero of 4/20 and in just a few years helped create worldwide awareness of a magic number to signify smoking weed.

And to this day no one knows – or can remember – who made that damn thing.

Zoomoma/Flickr 420 spreads in a way similar to acid: handwritten notes.

420 distributed in a manner similar to acid: handwritten notes.

It was New Years, 1990. The Grateful Dead were at home in the Bay Area, playing a series of shows at the Oakland Coliseum. Rick Pfrommer was manning the Cannabis Action Network booth on Shakedown Street — the name for the area where stickers, drugs and all sorts of gossip was traded before and after shows — when a mysterious figure shoved a piece of paper into his hands.

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

The last bit was wrong. It didn’t matter. A sentence never heard before was on its way into the lexicon.

“We have it in our hands. And we loved it,” said Debby Goldsberry, another Cannabis Action Network veteran.

The flyer went out with the Dead and the CAN, who handed it over to High Times editor Steve Bloom. Bloom ran “420” in the magazine and the flyer was handed to countless Deadheads from coast to coast.

“Tens of thousands” of copies of the flyer were distributed in 150 different cities, Pfrommer told SF Evergreen, a nationwide information campaign funded – unknowingly – by Kinko’s.

Copiers in those days used “digital counters” that noted how many copies you made. Without them, copiers wouldn’t work. Somehow, a counter-unit was “liberated” by CAN members.

“We went in there and paid them for 100 copies, and then we plugged in our counter and walked out several thousand copies,” Pfrommer recalls. “That was Kinko’s contribution to the legalization of cannabis – they played an important role in the liberation of the cannabis plant.”

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


Those meetings began in 1987 or 1988 and ended in the early 1990s — thanks again to the flyer, which caught the attention of the police, Hager recalls.

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

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

“They said we wanted to hold an event on April 20,” she recalls. “We said, ‘On 4/20?’ “Yes,” they said.

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

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

Which might never have happened if it wasn’t for a pamphletizing Deadhead. And lots and lots of toner for copiers.

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