Brownie Mary: The Cannabis Activist That Started It All
The Castro district in San Francisco is full of history. There’s the great gay bars and theaters, the Summer of Love, the activism, and of course Harvey Milk and his camera store. But among it all is a hidden chapter of the woman known as Brownie Mary. She lived in one of the Castro apartments, sweet, elderly, and foul-mouthed. She helped the neighborhood through the AIDS crisis when the government and straight society had turned their backs. You may have seen her cookbook, which offers all sorts of cannabis-infused recipes. But not one for her famous magic brownies. The secret she took to the grave.
They say her favorite way to toke was with a joint, alone in her apartment, and naked. She once appeared in court wearing a cannabis leaf pin. And she identified as an atheist and an anarchist ever since they kicked her out of Catholic school.
This is the story of an indispensable cannabis activist, known by her town and then the world as Brownie Mary.
Mary Jane Rathbun was born in Chicago on 22 December 1922. She had a hard time putting up with authority. When a nun in Catholic school tried to cane her at age 13, Mary Jane fought back and “got in a few good lickings” herself, she said. She left school and home after that and worked as a waitress for fifty years.
Mary Jane pounded the pavement for social and labor issues long before the fight for medical cannabis. She toured the Midwest, advocating for the rights of coal miners to form unions. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, she promoted abortion rights. (She was twenty years ahead of the underground abortion service known as the Jane Collective, which served the women of Chicago.)
During the war years, she moved to San Francisco, got married, and had a daughter. A drunk driver killed her daughter at the age of 22.
Mary’s magic brownies
Cut to the mid-1970s. Mary Jane, age 52, was working at an IHOP and selling pot brownies out of a basket.
The brownies were her own “magically delicious” recipe. She baked 50 dozen brownies a day in her apartment in the gay Castro neighborhood. She would test her batch by taking half a brownie in the morning and the rest in the afternoon. Once she started selling from her home, patrons lined up all the way down the stairs.
The police raided her house in 1981. She got three years’ probation and 500 hours of community service.
It was during that community service that she saw first hand what the AIDS crisis was doing to her neighbors. Edible cannabis treated their wasting syndrome in the same manner that it fought cancer. She got serious about her baking operation. Growers began donating weed to her, and she spent her monthly Social Security checks on baking supplies.
In 1982 the police arrested her again. An officer nabbed her on the way to delivering four dozen brownies to a friend with cancer. A little old lady thrown in jail for helping the community turned out to be good publicity. Brownie Mary’s cause gained more support.
The kids in Ward 86
Volunteering came naturally to Mary Jane. Her arrests gave her moderate fame, and people started to call her Brownie Mary. In 1984 she volunteered to serve the AIDS patients in Ward 86 at San Francisco General. She wheeled them to radiology and back. And she walked in every Thursday with her arms full of chocolates and cookies. She eased the young gay men of the ward through their terminal stages.
Mary Jane was a grandmother to them. And she called them her kids. They filled the void left by her late daughter.
The benefits of cannabis for those suffering from AIDS was unequivocal to Mary Jane by now. She spoke to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) about her experience. But gaining the recognition of weed’s medical use was not enough for her. The prize was full legalization. She campaigned for the ballot initiative Proposition P, which passed in 1991. It made medical weed available in San Francisco and allowed physicians to prescribe it.
Demand for her magic brownies was so high that she resorted to drawing names out of a cookie jar.
Brownie Mary goes to court
Mary Jane was arrested for a third time in July 1992. And this time they charged her with transporting marijuana, a felony. She plead guilty to possession for her first arrest, but this time she would not back down.
“My kids need this and I’m ready to go to jail for my principles. I’m not going to cut any deals with them. If I got to jail, I go to jail,” she said.
The case went to the Sonoma County court, The People v. Rathbun. But the people were overwhelmingly on Rathbun’s side. Cable news spread her story across the globe. The court acquitted Mary Jane on the grounds of medical necessity.
During all this excitement, Mary Jane wasn’t getting any younger. She was using pot brownies to get relief from her arthritis and pulmonary disease. It helped her through a bout with colon cancer. From the beginning of her baking career, a brownie a day helped her deliver her stuff on two artificial knees.
But her health problems didn’t stop her from protesting the U.S. Government in Washington DC or opening the first dispensary in the country, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, with her friend Dennis Peron.
Mary Jane had time for one more legal victory three years before her death. She campaigned for the state-wide initiative Proposition 215. It passed in 1996 and allowed medical patients to possess and grow pot. All ballot initiatives for statewide legalization of marijuana owe their success in part to this precedent.
Long live the Cannabis Queen
“My kids are dying, some of them in the streets. Why marijuana is not allowed is something I will never, never understand,” Mary Jane said in 1995.
Mary Jane was dying as well. Her comrade Dennis Peron urged her on, in case medical legalization would happen in her lifetime.
“She had given up three months ago — she said she was going to Michigan to see Dr. Kevorkian ,” he said to the New York Times, “because she was just in so much pain, and I said, ‘Mary, you can’t go see Kevorkian until November.'”
“I think I might live to see it, I really do,” Mary Jane told the same reporter. Then she added that she hoped the governor of California, Pete Wilson, will wet his pants when it happens.
At this point, she was too ill to continue baking.
The 1997 San Francisco Pride Parade honored Mary Jane and Dennis Peron as the Grand Marshals.
On 10 April 1999, Mary Jane suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 77. Three days later, 300 people with lit candles flooded the streets of the Castro.
Mary Jane belongs in the pantheon of women who organized for reform, for modern and humane medicine, like Dorothea Dix and Florence Nightingale. And she refused to stick to doing politics by the book. Her anarchist spirit saw the need for direct action. She did what she could to serve the community, the law be damned. No one knows exactly how many people she helped. It could be thousands.
A lesser known part of her legacy were the physicians struck by her arrests on the news. Two of them collaborated on clinical studies for cannabis. They went up against resistance by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But they got the funding for their research and built the case for medical cannabis in medical literature.
Brownie Mary’s service touched every front of the fight for legal weed. A little old lady baking brownies is the mother of us all.