By Kathleen Burke, MarketWatch
April 20 is the national holiday for marijuana fans. It’s Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one joint-filled day.
This year is expected to be the biggest bonanza for marijuana sales. Colorado alone is expected to see legal cannabis sales rise by about 25% to over $5 million a day from April 15 to April 20, up from around $4 million a day from April 17 to April 20 in 2015, according to a report from cannabis industry data firm BDS Analytics.
Based on last year’s increase, this year’s increase could even exceed that. On April 20, 2015, which fell on a Monday, legal cannabis sales nearly tripled compared with sales on an average Monday, with the size of each transaction increasing by about 33% from $34.80 per transaction to $46.20, according to data from Headset , a company that tracks cannabis transactions
April 20 first became associated with marijuana counterculture in the early 1990s, according to Matt Stang, chief revenue officer at cannabis culture magazine High Times. The number 420 had become popular at Grateful Dead concerts after a group of high-school students — referred to as “The Waldos” — in California gained notoriety for meeting at 4:20 p.m. to search for an alleged marijuana grow in the 1970s. When a music editor at High Times attended a Grateful Dead concert and noticed the number posted all around the venue, the magazine adopted it and ran with it, Stang says, even registering for the domain name 420.com in the late 1990s.
As the association between cannabis and 420 strengthened, marijuana-themed events and parties on college campuses began cropping up across the country on April 20, despite the plant’s illegal status.
Marijuana has been legalized in some form in about half of U.S. states: 23 states have legalized medical marijuana and four states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use. As public acceptance of marijuana use increases — 58% of Americans supported legalization in October 2015, up from 36% in 2005, according to a Gallup poll — marijuana enthusiasts, and the companies they patronize, have been able to be more open about celebrating the plant. “It used to be a counterculture, now it’s a culture,” Stang says. “We have this whole world of people who consume cannabis, and part of that milieu is 4/20.”
However, as more companies have realized the marketing potential of tens of thousands of people gathering to celebrate marijuana, the number has come to symbolize a different kind of green. “It’s sponsored by guys in business suits and packaged very slickly to trade on the rebel aspect that 4/20 used to have,” says Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University who specializes in federal drug policy. “It’s become a mainstream thing and a multibillion-dollar industry.”
See also: Legal marijuana needs big data to grow
With greater attention turned toward marijuana companies during the holiday, the date has also become an opportunity for product launches and concept introductions, says Robert Hunt, a general partner at cannabis-focused private-equity firm Tuatara Capital. Trade shows like High Times’ Cannabis Cup have become major industry events on April 20 — the 2015 cup in Denver had an attendance of about 53,000, according to Stang.
The elevated profile of 4/20 as a marketing opportunity has also increased competition within the space. “It’s challenging because there’s so much going on, everyone is running deals and specials,” says Paul Warshaw, founder and chief executive of GreenRush, a marijuana delivery service. The company is holding an industry career fair in San Francisco on April 30 to piggyback off the buzz surrounding 4/20. “It’s become very competitive, it’s about getting creative and coming up with these new concepts,” Warshaw says.
Companies outside of the cannabis industry are also trying to capitalize off the holiday. Last year, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s introduced its burrito-shaped frozen treat, the “BRRR-rito,” on April 20, while other brands like Pepsi /zigman2/quotes/208744353/composite PEP -0.28% and Carl’s Jr. tweeted stoner-themed messages.
Totino’s Pizza Rolls, a branch of General Mills /zigman2/quotes/206659526/composite GIS -0.32% , rolled out a 4/20-themed billboard campaign in Denver this year leading up to the holiday, featuring messages like “420 is better on pizza rolls,” and “Stock up B4/20,” next to photos of the microwavable snack.
“This is not about a political or social stance, this is about promoting the consumption of Pizza Rolls and celebrating the fans who love them,” wrote Mike Siemienas, a spokesman for Totino’s, said via email.
The involvement of mainstream brands is a sign of public acceptance of marijuana legalization. “It’s validation as a real industry,” Hunt says. “As soon as outside groups covet consumers during a certain time, it’s validation that this industry is more than it’s been given credit for.”
This type of recognition is helping the industry overcome one of its greatest obstacles: legitimizing a previously black-market trade. “The increase in tongue-in-cheek advertising really runs hand-in-hand with overall acceptance of the industry and the emergence of this business from the shadows,” says Aaron LoCascio, chief executive of VapeWorld, a vaporizing product wholesaler and retailer.
Despite the progress the commercialization of 4/20 has brought, others see it as another grass roots movement being taken over by corporations. “It’s really losing its meaning year by year,” Humphreys says. “(4/20) used to be this way to thumb your nose at authority. I don’t think it will carry that meaning much longer.”