420: Either you know what it means or you don't.
I'm talking about the "national holiday" celebrated by millions across the country, the "high holy day" of a prevalent and increasingly popular, and yet, understudied subculture.
So-called "Cannabis culture" has many iterations and variations, but there are some prominent examples of weed-related beliefs and expressions that permeate popular culture today.
Indeed, the very presence of variation signals its cultural strength.
The repetition of many of these forms – through songs, movies, and social media – reinforces traditions, expanding them over time from regional- or community-based traditions, to a national subculture.
For those of us who study traditions and communities, the emerging successes of legalization and corporatization provide a new challenge to the existing paradigm.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how the subculture responds to the corporate-driven normalization of marijuana in American culture.
The subculture even has sub-subcultures; for instance, Phish "phans" have their own variations on many common examples of weedlore.
In 2014, Patrick Mallon published a study on an online Phish community, highlighting the ways in which they exemplified what Henry Jenkins would call "participatory culture."
Culture exists in the ever-present tension between institutional and vernacular production and reception.
Cannabis culture has many forms typically associated with "folk" performance: legends and narratives, venerated spaces and, of course, holidays like 420. Many of these are reinforced through popular culture, especially song lyrics and movies.
If not overtly referencing Cannabis culture, many give a sort of "wink wink" set of references meant to convey a sense of postmodern tribalism, a community without geographic boundaries or shared history.
As example of this nationalized weedlore, one of the most prevalent legends in is about white lighters.
According to how the story is often told, famous musicians like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain all had a white lighter on them when they died. Thus, a legend was born.
Legends are a form of narrative; that is, a story that exemplifies some cultural value or norm that plays with truth. To do this effectively, the person telling the legend must ground the narrative in its own authority.
So, legends are couched in "known" quantities: locations, people, events, dates, etc.
Then the performer begins to negotiate that truth, adding in elements that are too good to be true or actions that seem bizarre or extraordinary in some way, forcing the audience to question their own accepted "truth" or "reality."
The legend of the white lighter fits this dynamic perfectly. We know Hendrix and Joplin died, and we associate them with the 60s counterculture and drugs. So, did they, in fact, have a white lighter on them?
Conversely, "white lighters" can also simply be an object of superstition.
Superstitions are attempts at creating power in situations where you are powerless. In this case, the white lighter carries negative power and is taboo.
Anecdotes reinforce this dynamic; I know a person who had a white lighter on him when he, shall we say, got in trouble with the law.
The aforementioned legend of the white lighter is debunked on
by CtrlAltBlaze, who then tells about how he still believes in the superstition, giving the white lighter the blame for a "string of bad luck."
The need to give power and control over to objects is nothing new; there are entire indexes of superstitions and taboos.
Its appearance in weedlore is just further proof of the traditional ways in which this subculture operates.
As for today, 420, there is an entire "official" creation story behind the holiday and its history.
The term itself has become a code word for weed consumption. Using the term on social media becomes a signifier, a way of proving your membership within the community.
Beyond "420," an entire language has evolved around this community, making membership as simple as knowing what terms mean and in what context they are to be used.
This is textbook folklore: informal boundaries meant to give membership meaning and exclude outsiders.
The question for us to consider is, what will change as marijuana decriminalization and legalization efforts continue to succeed across the nation?
When alcohol prohibition ended, so did an entire vernacular system of speakeasies and moonshine production. If marijuana prohibition ends, will we lose these slang terms, or will they be repurposed out of their original context?
Will the Smithsonian ever catalog songs about weed like they do for the Prohibition Era?
Legalization and corporatization of marijuana production and consumption has already begun, so it will be interesting to see the ways in which weedlore like "420" evolves with society.