Cannabis culture is steeped in larger-than-life figures who have all played a role in elevating awareness about this remarkable plant. One of these influential individuals is Mary Jane Rathbun, more affectionately known as Brownie Mary.
A medical cannabis activist and edibles pioneer, Brownie Mary first burst onto the public scene in the 1980s. Rathbun’s work in California at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis was pivotal to the legalization of medical cannabis. A somewhat unlikely heroine, Rathbun is nonetheless a legendary part of cannabis folklore.
Brownie Mary’s early life
Little has been formally documented about Brownie Mary’s early life. According to stories, she nursed a strong anti-establishment streak from early childhood. Born in 1922 and raised in a working-class neighborhood, Mary left her parents’ home in Minneapolis as a teen to forge her own way in the world. An activist from an early age, she fought for causes such as abortion rights and the right to unionize. The late 1930s took her to counter-cultural hub San Francisco.
Waitressing at the International House of Pancakes paid her bills but didn’t leave a lot left over. After her husband left, Mary needed a way to support their daughter, Peggy. That’s when Mary chanced upon a new side hustle to make ends meet — baking pot brownies. Rathbun advertised her “original recipe” brownies via fliers on neighborhood bulletin boards. Her “magically delicious” brownies quickly catapulted her into acclaim in the city’s mostly gay Castro district.
Rathbun was reportedly baking up to 600 brownies a day in the early 1980s and selling them from her home or distributing them from a basket on Castro’s streets. She met fellow cannabis activist Dennis Peron in 1974 at the San Francisco institution, Cafe Flore, where they bonded over a joint. Peron soon started selling her brownies from his Big Top pot supermarket on Castro Street.
Unfortunately, Rathbun’s growing popularity attracted the attention of the local police, too. An undercover cop posing as a customer busted her baking on the evening of January 14th, 1981, and seized more than 18 pounds of weed. As fate would have it, this arrest (the first of three) represented a significant turning point in Brownie Mary’s life.
How did Brownie Mary become involved with medical cannabis activism?
Rathbun’s first arrest led to a sentence of 500 hours of community service. Many of those hours were spent volunteering at The Shanti Project, a support group for those living with life-threatening illnesses. This work opened her eyes to individuals in the gay community living with HIV/AIDS who had been shunned by loved ones, and to a degree, forsaken by the mainstream medical establishment. Having lost her only daughter Peggy in a car accident in the early 1970s, Rathbun embraced the AIDS community as her kids.
Those with HIV/AIDS told Rathbun her brownies served a twofold purpose of easing pain and boosting appetite. She also heard they offered relief to cancer patients undergoing chemo treatments.
A regular visitor at the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, Rathbun was arrested again in 1992 while delivering a pot brownie to a cancer patient. She was unrepentant, however, insisting on the medicinal value of her infused treats.
“I know from smoking pot for over 30 years that this is a medicine that works,” Rathbun explained to the Associated Press in a 1992 interview. “It works for wasting syndrome. The kids have no appetite, but when they eat a brownie, they get out of bed and make themselves some food. And for chemotherapy, they eat half a brownie before a session, and when they get out they eat the other half. It eases the pain. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Despite arrests and formal warnings from the authorities, Rathbun ramped up pot brownie production in the mid-1980s. Increasing numbers of AIDS patients required palliative care or relief from nausea associated with early HIV treatments. Brownies no longer represented a way to boost her retirement fund, but a way to help ease the suffering of others. She funded the treats with her Social Security checks and anonymous donations from local dealers.
In 1992, Rathbun appeared before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, preaching the benefits of medical marijuana. Her testimony influenced the Board to semi-decriminalize the plant, making medical marijuana possession the lowest priority in arrests and prosecution.
Joining forces: Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron
Rathbun’s instinct for social justice naturally transitioned into campaigning for marijuana legalization. This shift was influenced, in part, by the work of close friend and fellow cannabis activist Dennis Peron.
In the early 1990s, Peron worked to educate AIDS advocacy groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for easing AIDS symptoms. After a lukewarm reception from ACT UP, Peron invited Rathbun to share her firsthand experiences distributing cannabis to those with AIDS. Together, the two activists began to shift views of cannabis, which has been classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance since 1970.
Rathbun’s advocacy efforts also captured the attention of medical professionals, who began researching the effects of cannabis on the immune systems of AIDS patients. In 2003, a landmark study clarified the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for those living with HIV/AIDS.
In 1991, Rathbun and Peron joined forces on Proposition P, a measure to make medical cannabis available in San Francisco and protect physicians from penalties for prescribing it. Rathbun was a regular face at board meetings championing the cannabis cause, complete with marijuana-inspired jewelry, pins, and her unmistakable sweater vests.
Proposition P passed with almost 80% support on November 5th, 1991. Five years later, voters also checked yes for Proposition 215, making California the first state in the US to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The passage of this landmark bill set a precedent and Washington, Oregon, and Alaska soon followed with their own medical marijuana initiatives.
An enduring legacy: the Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron Act
Rathbun died following a heart attack in 1999, but her legacy still endures. Compassion was truly Rathbun’s modus operandi. It, along with an unwavering belief in the healing power of cannabis, helped her pioneer cannabis law reform. Recent measures in California have recognized the need to make cannabis accessible to low-income patients who need it most.
In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 34, the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act, to exempt compassionate care programs from paying state cannabis taxes in California. Compassionate care programs, the original medical marijuana dispensaries, have been ravaged by the cost of doing business since California legalized adult-use cannabis, often forcing participants in the programs back into the illicit market. The bill’s chief sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, released a statement following the signing.
“For decades, compassion programs have played a critical role in helping low-income people with serious medical conditions access their medicine,” Wiener stated. “Taxing programs that give away free medical cannabis, and thus have no revenue, makes no sense and has caused far too many of these programs to close. SB 34 will allow compassionate care programs to survive and serve those in need.”
In 1992, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared Aug. 25 “Brownie Mary Day” to honor her work helping AIDS patients. It’s a day that is still celebrated in San Francisco. Peron and Rathbun also co-authored a book three years before her death: Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change. Alas, the book doesn’t include Rathbun’s famed “magically delicious” brownie recipe.