Cannabis has a rich cultural heritage and carries with it stigmas, advocacy, and stereotypes. Most importantly, the plant that continues to provide therapeutic benefits to people across the globe, carries with it so many stories of its discovery, its origins, and its pioneers. When the phrase “cannabis pioneers” is mentioned most people likely think of people like Lester Grinspoon or Jack Herer first, but Mary Jane Rathbun aka “Brownie Mary” had significant impact on medical uses marijuana and has a solid foothold in the annals of marijuana’s reputation and illustrates enough rebellion to still let her be remembered as an outlaw as well as an advocate.
Mary Jane Rathbun was born in Chicago in 1921 and had what most would consider a tough row to hoe. Her strict Catholic upbringing likely drove her decision to leave home in Minnesota and waitress in order to support herself, and would eventually marry and have a daughter, Peggy, who was later killed in a tragic automobile accident.
Her marriage was short-lived, but one of her new friends in San Francisco, Dennis Peron, would share a joint with her and she would be known decades later as Brownie Mary, her own self-appointed title. She and Peron, along with other revolutionaries would continue to promote cannabis advocacy for the next 25 years and eventually led to legalization in California in 1996.
Remember this was in the midst of the end of the hippie movement and Mary herself also suffered from a number of painful illnesses – including colon cancer and arthritis.
Despite her own health issues, she found herself working as a volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital during the 1980s and 1990s when AIDS and HIV were plaguing a large part of the city’s residents. Her job as a waitress at IHOP lasted for more than 25 years, but her side hustle was baking cannabis-infused brownies. The patients she saw suffering from AIDs found relief from loss of appetite and helped to ease the impacts of the still-new disease at that time. While living in San Francisco, she lived in public housing near the Haight-Ashbury, and although she charged some people for the brownies she made, only to cover the cost of ingredients. She considered herself a caretaker of the victims of the AIDs epidemic and the numerous runaway kids in San Francisco at the time and was no stranger to the law enforcement community, having been arrested twice before the end of 1984.
Selling brownies for-profit ceased wasn’t Rathbun’s goal—she had too many dying kids to save. During her baking heyday, from about 1984 to 1990, it’s estimated she made 1,500 brownies a month, funding the ingredients with her paltry social security cheques along with cannabis anonymously donated by local dealers. With more requests coming in than she could possibly fulfill, Rathbun resorted to pulling names from a cookie jar. “Of course, people were dying all the time. Sometimes you would see her walking on the street, just crying for her ‘kids,’” said her late friend and fellow activist Dennis Peron in a 1999 Toronto Star article.
Her final arrest was in 1992 when she was charged with felony transport. The judge knew of her reputation as “the grandma who baked pot brownies for sick people” and dismissed all charges to try and avoid the public outcry of the advocate community and the scrutiny of the press over the arrest.
That same year, Brownie Mary would present to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis as medicine and helped garner public awareness and support of medical marijuana. She and Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, and in 1996 the historic passing of Prop 215 would change the lives of California’s patient population and spark a nationwide and decades-long move in the direction of legal cannabis in multiple states.
When Rathbun died in 1999 at the age of 76, she was remembered as a feisty and fitting mother of the medical cannabis movement. Her famous recipe died with her, despite her request to sell to the highest bidder and donate the proceeds to AIDs-related charities. Today her friend Peron said, “She once explained it to me: When you’re buying boxes of brownies, look at how much oil the recipe calls for, and go for the one that uses the most oil.”
Cannabis pioneers are not in short supply, and they come from all walks of life, including scientists, activists, clinicians, and patients. Brownie Mary’s legacy is a true testament to the medicinal benefits of cannabis and her desire to take care of her “kids” is truly inspiring.