March 24, 2022

Hippiest of holidays: the evolution of 4/20 and its impact on cannabis retailers

March 24, 2022

Less than one month from now, we’ll have arrived at the hippiest of all holidays: April 20th. Or, as it’s better known to the global cannabis community, 420. For dispensary owners and managers, 4/20 has become a landmark retail occasion that’s frequently compared to Black Friday. But if you look past the explosive sales in recent years, you’ll find that 4/20 actually had some pretty humble beginnings. Let’s peel back the curtain.

Five best friends, a treasure map, and the rise of a global phenomenon

Sounds like something out of The Goonies, right? But before we get to the heart of 420’s hazy history, let’s shed some light on the urban myths that have persisted through the years.

There are a handful of stories out there that attempt to explain how 420 got its start. Many believe it was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. When multiplied together, the two numbers equal 420—and the lyrics are telling. Others reference a theory that claims there are 420 chemical compounds in a single cannabis plant, but this number might actually be closer to 500. A few may be quick to point out that 420 was the police code for cannabis violations in California, but that isn’t true, either.

The most widely-accepted and beloved theory can be traced back to 1971 in San Rafael, California. Five teenagers and best friends, known as “The Waldos”, devised a plan to search for an abandoned cannabis crop—the location of which was hidden on a treasure map created by the grower. The Waldos, each of whom attended San Rafael High School, designated the school’s Louis Pasteur statue as their meeting point, where they gathered at—you guessed it—4:20pm. The operation was nicknamed “4:20 Louis”.

After several failed attempts to locate the crop, The Waldos abandoned their search and decided to shorten the phrase 4:20 Louis to 4:20. It quickly evolved into a code that the friends used as an invitation to smoke cannabis.

While the first mention of 420 appeared in High Times in 1991 (referencing the now-debunked policy code theory), the connection to The Waldos wasn’t made until 1998. High Times journalist Steven Hager introduced the theory when he linked 420’s popularity to one of The Waldos, Dave Reddix, becoming a roadie for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. The phrase spread like wildfire among Dead Heads, and the rest is history—although not even The Waldos imagined it would become a global celebration.

How states’ legalization of cannabis is changing the meaning of 420

Despite the humble beginnings of 420, the US’s relationship with cannabis is… well, complicated. America’s War on Drugs was first declared in the early 1970s, spurring the rise of the counterculture movement that embraced cannabis as a symbol of peace. But by the mid-1980s, public perception had shifted dramatically. 

In an attempt to “toughen up” on crime, the federal government doubled-down on the campaign, pouring millions of dollars into military and police intervention that disproportionately affected communities of color. Half a century later, we’re still reeling from the consequences. Not only does cannabis remain a Schedule I drug—alongside heroin and bath salts—over 40,000 non-violent offenders are serving lengthy prison sentences for a substance that has been legalized in several states.

Fortunately, there’s some good news: access to legalized cannabis is growing rapidly. Thanks to a wave of state-passed legislation in 2021, Virginia, New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey are the latest to hop on the recreational bandwagon. As of March 2022, a total of 18 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized adult use. When you crunch the numbers, that means nearly half of all Americans live in an area where they can legally purchase and consume cannabis products

While the meaning of 420 differs from person to person—whether it’s movies and munchies or justice and reform—its impact on retail can’t be overstated. Let’s explore what this means for your store’s promotional strategy.

What previous 420 sales tell us about what to expect in 2022

As cannabis legalization grows, so does the importance of 420 for retailers. This spring marks the two-year anniversary of COVID-19 in North America, which caused a boom in cannabis sales during government-mandated lockdowns. But on the big day? Not so much. While millions of people were facing the harsh realities of quarantine, dispensaries were deemed essential businesses. At the time, 420 was just weeks away, leaving retailers very little time to enact mandated in-store safety measures. 

Ultimately, 420 sales took a dive in the pandemic’s first year. The dip was a wake-up call for retailers, who realized they needed to adjust their operations to better accommodate social distancing and customer preferences. In response, alternatives to in-store shopping—such as online ordering, curbside pick-up, and delivery—quickly emerged, increasing retailers’ reliance on ecommerce technology and reliable point-of-sale (POS) integrations.

Last year brought a renewed sense of optimism as the world took its first steps toward recovery. A 2021 study from Headset supported this shift: April 20, 2021 was the largest single day of cannabis sales on record in both the US and Canada. In the US, recreational sales across CA, CO, NV, OR (including medical sales), and WA broke $42.6 million. In Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, total recreational sales reached $5.97 million CAD.

In a 2020 study from Verilife, 72% of respondents identified COVID-19 as the number one cause of their anxiety and burnout; within this subset, 40% stated they used cannabis to de-stress and relax. Across all US recreational markets, the number of people who consumed cannabis at the end of 2020 was greater than six months prior—but don’t expect this wave to subside along with the pandemic. More people are consuming cannabis than ever before, and your store needs to be prepared to support the influx of sales during the Green Rush.

Preparing your store for the 420 rush

If you’re a dispensary owner or manager, you know how important 420 is to your retail sales. But are you prepared to identify and take action on the steps required to make the most of it? If not, there’s no shame in your game—Dutchie has your back.

At the beginning of April, keep an eye out for our newest white paper, The Ultimate 420 Survival Guide for Cannabis Retailers. We’ll cover everything you’ll need for a successful day of retail sales, including:

  • Deals, discounts, and promotions: marketing strategies that build excitement and FOMO
  • The in-store experience: layouts and floor plans that keep customers happy, plus eye-catching merchandising
  • Your ideal tech stack: mission-critical tools you’ll need to satisfy demand, track inventory, power sales, and stay compliant
  • Staffing: how to communicate with, train, and support your team leading up to (and during) the big day
  • Post-holiday sales performance: how to review and analyze consumption trends and sales performance—and plan for next year

Is your dispensary 420-ready?

For high(er) retail sales this year, you’ll need a reliable POS to help you stay compliant, track product inventory, and keep customers happy. At Dutchie, we understand the nuances that come with owning and operating a dispensary—that’s why our powerful, flexible point of sale, ecommerce, and payments solutions are designed specifically for cannabis. Easily configured and customizable, our technology is designed to grow with you; whether you’re preparing for 420 or just another Wednesday.

Book a demo ->

About the author
The Dutchie Squad