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Born Mary Jane Rathbun, “Brownie Mary” was one of the most significant figures in the San Francisco cannabis scene in the 80s and 90s.
She lobbied for legalization and was instrumental in passing Proposition 215, which made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. This set off a chain reaction across the country for medical marijuana legislation.
While most grandparents are known for amazing cooking and caring for their grandkids, for Brownie Mary, it was a whole community that she adopted and cared for. Armed with a special recipe for cannabis-infused brownies (thus the nickname) and a compassionate heart, Brownie Mary emerged as one of the most impactful figures in the medical marijuana world.
Though she was famous for her chocolatey marijuana-infused baked confections — the recipe remains a secret to this day — many remember Rathbun for making the medical marijuana movement what it is today.
Brownie Mary’s actions generated interest in the medical community, ultimately motivating researchers to examine the therapeutic potential of cannabis.
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The Early Years
In 1922 Chicago, Mary Jane Rathbun was born. Her mother, a conservative Irish Catholic, named her Mary Jane, which ironically is slang for cannabis.
Rathbun was raised in Minneapolis and attended Catholic school, where her first noted acts of defiance stood out. At age 13, a nun tried caning her, but she fought back. She later dropped out of school and moved out of her childhood home to look for a job.
Rathbun started work as a waitress, a career she would maintain for most of her life. An activist from an early age, Rathbun fought for many causes, including the rights of miners to unionize in Wisconsin and abortion rights for women in Minneapolis.
During World War II, she moved to San Francisco and married a man she met at a USO dance. Though the marriage didn’t last, it produced a daughter named Peggy, who tragically was killed in a car crash in the 1970s.
Being a waitress paid the bills but left nothing over. So, the soon-to-be Brownie Mary took up selling edibles to make extra money. In 1974, Rathbun met fellow marijuana activist Dennis Peron at Café Flore, where they bonded and smoked cannabis together.
Rathbun teamed up with Peron and started selling her brownies from his Big Top Supermarket in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. By the 1980s, she made over 50 dozen brownies a day, openly advertising them on city bulletin boards. While business was booming, it also attracted some unwanted attention from the police.
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Edible Extraordinaire and the First Arrest
According to John Entwistle, Peron’s husband and co-author of Proposition 215, Mary’s weed was for everyone. She openly advertised her “magically delicious” brownies, and as expected, it didn’t take long for the police to get wind.
On a night in January 1981, an undercover police officer busted her. Police raided her house and found over 18 pounds of marijuana, 54 dozen cannabis brownies, and other drugs.
This arrest made national headlines, and the media christened her “Brownie Mary.” Rathbun pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years probation and 500 hours of community service.
Rathbun did community service at various places, including the Shanti Project, a non-profit that supports people with AIDS/HIV. This was when the AIDS crisis was devastating gay communities everywhere, especially in San Francisco.
During that time, Rathbun observed that marijuana reduced pain and improved appetite in AIDS patients suffering from wasting syndrome caused by the disease. With her monthly $650 social security check and donations from friends, she began baking cannabis brownies and supplying them to AIDS patients, free of charge.
Volunteering at San Francisco General Hospital, More Arrests, and Proposition P
In December 1982, Brownie Mary was delivering baked goods to a friend with cancer (cannabis has been shown to help with the effects of chemotherapy) when she ran into an officer who had arrested her earlier the year before. Again, she was arrested on possession charges and violation of probation, but the charges were dropped this time.
The arrest did not deter her. In 1984, she started volunteering at Ward 86 of San Francisco General Hospital — the first dedicated AIDS clinic in the country.
Here she cared for the people seeking AIDS-related treatment and supplied them with magic brownies. In 1986, she was awarded Volunteer of the Year by the hospital. Seeing firsthand the therapeutic effects marijuana had on patients, Rathbun became a lifelong advocate for legalizing medical marijuana.
She spoke publicly about legalizing cannabis and worked on Proposition P, which urged legislators to make medical cannabis available in San Francisco.
Brownie Mary was arrested a third time in 1992 and was ultimately acquitted. This time she received massive positive coverage. The media no longer portrayed her as a “bad” grandmother selling weed but as an AIDS activist who cared for her patients and encouraged them to keep living.
After her arrest, she testified to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors about the medical benefits of cannabis, eventually convincing them to make medicinal cannabis possession the lowest priority arrest.
Medical Marijuana for All: Brownie Mary’s Legacy
With the help of Brownie Mary and fellow advocates like Dennis Peron, Proposition P passed with 79% support in 1991. The legislation recommended California adopt medical marijuana and protect physicians against penalties for prescribing it.
Rathbun also helped launch the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club — the first public cannabis dispensary in the United States. Thanks to her years of dedicated volunteer work at the San Francisco General Hospital, August 25 was officially declared Brownie Mary Day.
In 1996, California Proposition 215 passed with 56% of the vote. The law made medical marijuana legal in the state. This pivotal piece of legislation that Brownie Mary, Peron, and so many others fought for paved the way for marijuana legalization across the country.
Today, 37 states have legalized medical marijuana, and 21 states (plus Washington D.C.) have legalized recreational cannabis use for adults 21 years and older.
Mary Jane Rathbun passed away in 1999 at the age of 76. Her legacy lives on as new generations pick up the mission (and perhaps some magical brownie baking) to improve the lives of the millions of people who use medical marijuana across the country.
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