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4/20 on San Francisco’s Hippie Hill: A Bay Area Tradition Tightens Up

Cesar Gallegos

by Cesar Gallegos

April 4, 2024 08:00 am ET Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
Fact checked by Kymberly Drapcho
4/20 on San Francisco’s Hippie Hill: A Bay Area Tradition Tightens Up

It’s April 20th, 2023. In the corner of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, an estimated 20,000 people gather around an unassuming hill lodged between the Conservatory of Flowers and the legendary Haight Street.

On stage, Erykah Badu leads a countdown to 4:20 PM. As the clock hits that magical hour, attendees of 4/20 at Hippie Hill release cannabis smoke from their lungs, enveloping the surrounding area in a pungent cloud.  

San Francisco’s Hippie Hill is a testament to the city’s rich history of counterculture movements and its free-spirited reputation. Every year, cannabis enthusiasts from the Bay Area and beyond gather to celebrate 4/20. 

What follows is the history of Hippie Hill, how it became a landmark of cannabis culture, and why the once spontaneous festival came to embrace fences and decorum.  

Hippie Hill’s Origins & How It Became A 4/20 Hub

During the 1960s, Hippie Hill became a frequent meeting spot for hippies coming over from the nearby Haight Street, the epicenter of San Francisco’s counterculture movement. Groups would gather on the hill to unwind and take in nature while consuming LSD and cannabis. The sound of guitars, drum circles, and other instruments would fill the air. 

Hippie Hill gained national fame during the Summer of Love in 1967. That summer, Hippie Hill hosted free performances from artists like Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and George Harrison. Though the hippie movement would die down in the years following the Summer of Love, Hippie Hill continued to hold a special place in the hearts of cannabis users across the Bay Area. That said, it would not become the 4/20 hub many know it as today for a couple more decades.

In 1971, just across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael, five high school students used a treasure map to try and find a secret abandoned cannabis crop. In their quest for a mystical cannabis bounty, the group inadvertently created the term “4:20” (the tale is worth its own read). In 1998, one of the San Rafel students who originated the phrase became a roadie for the Grateful Dead. There, the former San Rafael student popularized the phrase, declaring 4:20 PM as the perfect time to consume cannabis.

The popularization of the phrase helped 4/20 become a cannabis holiday, inviting cannabis consumers from all over to gather and celebrate their favorite plant. Hippie Hill, already a sacred site for cannabis consumers and retired hippies alike, became a natural home for the tradition rooted in the Bay Area.

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Hippie Hill’s 4/20 Celebration Hits Some Growing Pains

For much of its early existence, 4/20 at Hippie Hill was an incredibly unregulated event. Thousands of people from all across the Bay would flood the streets of nearby neighborhoods like Haight and Ashbury, Cole Valley, and the residential Sunset District. 

As the event grew in size so too did the number of complaints from locals. Residents complained about everything from illegal parking and gridlocked streets to bad behavior from event attendees. Tensions boiled over after 2013’s 4/20 celebration which required a $15,000 cleanup effort. One resident described the aftermath saying, It looked like a garbage truck had been detonated.”

These increasing complaints caught the attention of Haight District Supervisor and current SF mayor, London Breed. In response, 2014’s 4/20 featured an increased police presence meant to maintain a more orderly environment. Wanting to keep the spirit of the San Francisco tradition alive, however, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said that they would not be targeting attendees smoking cannabis. Instead, police handed out violations for “alcoholic beverages, tree climbing, fires, and peddling or vending without a permit.”

Even with increased police supervision, however, Hippie Hill’s 4/20 festivities proved too difficult to regulate. In 2015, visitors left over 17,000 pounds of trash in the area, which ballooned to 22,000 pounds in 2016. Widespread littering, combined with several reports of violence and theft, almost resulted in the event being shut down permanently after 2016. It was clear that the famously free-spirited celebration needed more structure.

The 4/20 Festival Goes Corporate

Following a disastrous 2016, Golden Gate Park personnel, neighborhood organizers, and corporate interest groups stepped up to create a more structured event. Thus, 4/20 at Hippie Hill was officially created, with event company Sounds Bazaar LLC tasked with overseeing the logistics. After some progress was made in taming the event, 2020’s pandemic temporarily paused the festival.

2022 marked the triumphant return of the festival. It also marked the first time that cannabis was sold legally at Hippie Hill. The 2022 festival featured dispensary booths (including Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Cannabis), food trucks, and performance stages set up in the fenced-off Hippie Hill Farmers market area. Attendants were required to show ID showing they were 21+ to enter.

The new 4/20 at Hippie Hill looks a little different than it did 10 years ago, let alone during the 1967 Summer of Love, which cemented the unassuming grassy hill with a great view as a cultural landmark. Gone are the days when groups of cannabis enthusiasts could freely gather around Hippie Hill to share their love for each other and the plant. Today, fenced-off areas plastered with cannabis company logos and corporate sponsorships fill the once-open field. 

With its wild spirit tamed, what does 4/20 on Hippie Hill represent today?

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