The growth of 4-20: How consumer cannabis is continuing to change
This greeting can sometimes be heard ringing out around 4:20 in the afternoon, or more often, it can be heard on April 20th, or more likely still, on April 20th at 4:20pm. And odds are particularly high (pun intended!) that when heard, the phrase is accompanied by a skunky-sweet-herbal aroma wafting on the breeze. Depending where you are, or more precisely on the legality of cannabis in your jurisdiction, there may also be a dense cloud of patchouli (a woody, musky, earthy scented oil) or an incense aroma hanging in the air from attempts to mask the characteristic smell associated with cannabis.
Almost universally, cannabis consumers know 4-20 to be synonymous with cannabis-friendly environments. Indeed, 4-20 has become deeply enshrined in the collective cannabis culture, and in 2003, it became forever legally associated with cannabis through California’s Senate Bill SB 420, which focused on medical cannabis. For both non-consumers and consumers alike, the formal codification of 4-20 happened in 2017 when the Oxford English Dictionary published an update to include 420, n. Marijuana; the action of smoking marijuana.
Typically pronounced “four-twenty”, the digits can be found formatted as a time, a date, with or without hyphenation — whichever way it’s written, s’all good! Here, we use the 4-20 format as a subtle reminder of the pronunciation. It also helps give clarity to those cannabis users who twist up numbers (e.g., what Canadians call a “half-quarter” measure of cannabis is, by weight, a 1/8th ounce).
Over the decades 4-20 has been in use, various rationales attempt to explain why the order of these three numbers is synonymous with cannabis. Some of the more seemingly reasonable origins have to do with Bob Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and police codes for use in-progress, while the less credulous, especially considering the historic typification of cannabis users as passive and non-violent, suggest theories like Hitler’s birthday is the origin.
The current widely accepted origin of 4-20 is that in the early 1970s a group of teenage friends (who called themselves the Waldos) at San Rafael High School in Marin County, California started using 4-20 as their intra-group code to communicate the time they would meet (i.e., 4:20pm, conveniently after school and extracurriculars but before parents came home) to smoke cannabis.
4-20 has evolved over the years to mean many things to many people; from a day held sacred in protest of cannabis prohibition to a celebration of the plant and its people, 4-20 has become the internationally accepted holiday of cannabis consumption. From coast to coast and around the globe, 4-20 festivities of every flavor can be found, from massive gatherings of hundreds of thousands of cannabis enthusiasts and canna-curious onlookers to small-serviced sessions with select friends.
It was suggested that 4-20 would be of significantly less importance to consumers once legalization for all uses (i.e., recreational and medical) was implemented in Canada in 2018, but it continues still to be a very big deal to Canadians. Even the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped 4-20. With the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 came virtual 4-20 celebrations, which were welcomed by consumers.
Evidence supporting the strength of association between 4-20 and cannabis consumption comes from surveys of consumers’ self-reported awareness, which indicates that the majority (55%) of Canadians in 2022, and over 75% of those aged 18-34, are aware of 4-20. Additionally, market data indicates that, even during lockdown, spending on cannabis increased 50% on 4-20.
Drilling down into consumer and retail data from previous years, predictions for this coming 4-20 are promising soaring sales and satisfied celebrants through product variety and deep discounts. While the majority of cannabis consumers are usually men,16,17 across all generations on 4-20, women increase purchasing more than men.
Given the dynamic environment of the cannabis product landscape, the cannabis consumer profile is very rapidly evolving and growing. New and canna-curious consumers may not yet have a preferred or established product format or brand, while existing and heavy users may never stray from their preferred products. Understanding all types of cannabis consumers, how they think about 4-20 and their own consumption preferences and habits, can help establish brand trust and, ultimately, brand loyalty.
If you are interested in learning more about how HCD Research can help you explore the wellness space (including cannabinoids), please contact Allison Gutkowski at Allison.Gutkowski@hcdi.net.
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11. Matheson D. Clouded memories: The history of Vancouver’s 4/20 pot rally. British Columbia. Published April 19, 2016. Accessed April 16, 2022. https://bc.ctvnews.ca/clouded-memories-the-history-of-vancouver-s-4-20-pot-rally-1.2865932
12. A look at Canada’s first 4-20 celebrations since legalization - National | Globalnews.ca. Global News. Accessed April 16, 2022. https://globalnews.ca/news/5186818/4-20-celebrations-across-canada/
13. 10 virtual 4/20 parties from online concerts to workshops to celebrate the marijuana holiday. The Denver Post. Published April 14, 2020. Accessed April 16, 2022. https://www.denverpost.com/2020/04/14/10-virtual-4-20-parties-from-online-concerts-to-workshops-to-celebrate-the-marijuana-holiday/
14. Bloomberg BNN. Cannabis Canada Weekly: Retailers see 50% jump in 420 sales despite lockdowns - BNN Bloomberg. BNN. Published April 23, 2021. Accessed April 16, 2022. https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/cannabis-canada-weekly-retailers-see-50-jump-in-420-sales-despite-lockdowns-1.1594546
15. Ltd TGODH. Highly Dutch Organic launches 420 Hotline. Accessed April 17, 2022. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/highly-dutch-organic-launches-420-hotline-829810426.html
16. Majority of Canadians (55%) Aware of 4/20 Celebrations for Cannabis Consumption. Ipsos. Accessed April 16, 2022. https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/Majority-of-Canadians-55-percent-Aware-of-420-Celebrations-for-Cannabis-Consumption
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