Can 4/20 still be deemed a countercultural event or is it a business opportunity passing the UK by?

For decades, April 20th has been an underground, unofficial celebration of marijuana. Many see the holiday as a day to smoke cannabis and relax with friends. Other activist groups see it as an opportunity to push their agenda for marijuana legalisation. Meanwhile in the US, where recreational cannabis is now legal in 20 states, businesses and marketers are beginning to consider ways of monetising the event with huge corporate sponsors. With such a rapid commercial acceleration, can 4/20 still be deemed a countercultural event? Or is it a business opportunity which is passing the UK by?

From humble beginnings, 4/20 has become a mainstay in the sphere of mainstream awareness. Memes and slogans like #420BlazeIt have quickly entered our lexicon, with many people both ironically and unironically investing in all manner of ‘stoner’ merchandise. In popular culture, global artists like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa are incredibly open about their indulgence in cannabis. How is it possible that a drug that is still illegal in the UK could escalate to this level of cultural significance? To answer that, we have to trace our way back to the beginning…

Where did 4/20 come from?

There is still plenty of debate surrounding the origins of 4/20. Some claim the date derives from the old Californian police code for marijuana usage (420). Others falsely claim it is to do with the 420 active chemicals present in cannabis (there are actually over 500).

The most widely accepted theory, the BBC reports, roots from northern California in 1971. A group of students at San Rafael High School came across a hand-drawn map, which they believed led to a secret marijuana farm. They would meet at 4.20 pm every day to go look for it, during which time they would smoke an excessive amount of cannabis. Eventually, ‘420’ became a code for meeting up and smoking weed. The term gradually spread throughout California and became common use when it was picked up by fans of the band The Grateful Dead.

The band had been a figurehead of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, originally performing at the infamous LSD parties taking place across California. By 1970, the countercultural movement was on the decline, but the band continued to tour. For countless hippies and stoners, The Grateful Dead represented a way back to that ‘golden age’ of drug usage. In this climate of nostalgia and yearning for freedom from social conformity, the practice and ethos of 4/20 was able to thrive in underground circles for generations.

How is 4/20 celebrated today?

In the US, as a result of increasing legalisation, 4/20 festivities have become much more mainstream and commercialised. In 2014, the year when Colorado became the first state to legalise cannabis, organisers compared the continuing struggle for international legalisation to ‘the times when Jews fled from slavery in Egypt’ (Vox reports). They believed that in fighting for freedom of marijuana usage, they were also fighting for freedom from capitalism. It’s ironic, therefore, that 4/20 is swiftly slipping into commodification.

According to Statista, marijuana start-ups such as Tilray in Canada are receiving funding in excess of $47million. When Colorado and Washington first rolled out the steps towards legalisation, disclosed market funding reached $239million, rising to $593million by 2017.

Furthermore, huge commercial events now surround 4/20 in the States, including corporate-sponsored concerts and massive celebrity-endorsed trade events. Many brands are hoping to secure major sponsorship deals with the event. The hope is to turn the tide of 4/20 away from its countercultural roots and towards the way of holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, where intoxication is highly encouraged in a similar fashion.

Why is cannabis illegal in the UK?

4/20 remains a strictly counterculture phenomenon in the UK due to the persisting illegality of cannabis. It’s clear that 4/20 is a marketing opportunity ready to explode across the pond. So, why is the UK still so far behind? In the UK, cannabis is categorised as a Class B drug, and possession of it can be punished by up to five years in prison. The drug still falls under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, ironically the year of 4/20’s conception. This legislation officially deems that cannabis offers no therapeutic benefits and has a high capacity for abuse.

The government believe that the circulation of cannabis is harmful to public health and communities. In fact, 49% of Conservatives, the UK’s ruling political party, are strongly opposed to decriminalisation. However, some people argue that cannabis remains illegal for more sinister reasons. Some conspiracies suggest that alcohol companies are pressuring the government to avoid legalisation in order to deplete competition in the intoxicant market. Another long-standing theory amongst ‘stoners’ is that cannabis was first criminalised in 1928 because the rise of hemp was a threat to the timber industry.

In 2022, however, many are asking if it’s time to legalise cannabis. While the long-term health benefits of such legislation are still up for dispute, the economic benefits demonstrated in the US are plain to see. With the UK being one of the world’s largest producers of CBD products, it’s clear that the market for marijuana is already here. 4/20 in the UK still bubbles beneath the surface, but it seems ready to erupt. If it does, UK businesses will have the power to transform 4/20 from a counterculture holiday to a nationwide cultural event.