Maybe it was an anti-authoritarian streak that she exhibited from a young age. Or maybe it was the tragic loss of a daughter who had just reach adulthood, leaving her with mothering instincts to spare. Whatever it was that inspired her act of quiet rebellion, Mary Jane Rathbun, a.k.a. Brownie Mary, will long be remembered for providing her cannabis edibles to people in need decades before doing so was made legal.
The story of medical cannabis in California, and the ultimate legalization of recreational marijuana in this state and elsewhere, isn’t complete without Brownie Mary. Foul-mouthed and an anarchist by nature, Rathbun fit in well with the counterculture of San Francisco. An early story had it that Rathbun rebelled against a nun in Catholic school, fighting back when the nun tried to cane her. And she took to activism as a teenager in the midwest, protesting for abortion rights in Minneapolis as early as the 1940s
She started out baking a few batches of pot brownies in her SF kitchen in the early 1970s, later advertising her brownie business via flyers that hinted the treats were “magically delicious.” That caught the attention of the police, and her first bust came in 1981, with an SFPD detective at her door posing as a customer.
Legal Trouble Due to Baking
“Oh, shit,” was how Rathbun responded to finding out she was busted, according to the legend as relayed by Atlas Obscura. But at age 57 and looking every bit the grandmotherly type — a rival SF brownie maker, Meridy Volz, tells KQED that Rathbun looked “conservative” and “like the church lady down the block” — Rathbun’s arrest was the makings of national headlines. And the case set her up to become a pioneer crusader for medical cannabis when her edibles turned out to be legit medicine for some of the first AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital.
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Rathbun ended up pleading guilty to nine counts of possession and received three years probation, with 500 hours of community service attached. According to an account from fellow SF medical cannabis activist Dennis Peron, with whom she would later collaborate, Rathbun completed those community service hours with pleasure, and in record time — 60 days. She was working with community organizations like the Shanti Project — a support group for HIV/AIDS patients — just as the scourge of HIV was hitting the Castro neighborhood in 1982. And with no child of her own — Rathbun’s only daughter Peggy died in a car accident in the early 1970s at the age of 22 — Rathbun seemed to want to mother everyone through this unfolding crisis.
As Peron put it, “She adopted every kid in San Francisco as her own.”
Rathbun’s volunteer work took her into SF General as well, and she ended up being arrested again in 1982 for bringing a pot brownie to a cancer patient there. She learned that cannabis edibles had a magical effect in easing nausea for cancer patients. But it was there at the hospital that she also saw the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic, and as the story goes, her brownie production went into high gear by 1984 as more and more AIDS patients needed palliative care and cannabis to treat the nausea brought on by early HIV treatments.
Baking Brownies for Good
Peron said that during this period, from 1984 to about 1991, Brownie Mary was baking 134 dozen pot brownies in her apartment every month. Local weed dealers gave her the leaf and shake they couldn’t sell, and anecdotally her entire apartment building reeked of pot constantly during these years.
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“She called them her kids,” Peron said of Mary and her relationships with gay men dying of AIDS. “Many of them were dying alone and despised. Their families wouldn’t even visit them. She baked them something that helped ease their pain, and she also dispensed friendliness and resilience. A lot of those patients called her an angel of mercy.”
Rathbun’s wholesome image was useful for the burgeoning cause of legalizing medical cannabis, as Peron quickly figured out. Speaking to Cannabis Culture in 1999, he described a flyer that he and Rathbun made featuring the first SFPD detective who arrested her, narcotics officer Stephen Bossard. Brossard was himself arrested a few years later for a drunken incident in his backyard in which he shot off his gun and was walking around in his underpants waving the weapon around.
“We took the article about him and put it on a poster next to the article about him arresting Brownie Mary,” Peron said. “Underneath it we had the headline ‘One of these people is a threat to your safety! Which one is it?”
In 1992, Rathbun was arrested in Sonoma County while making pot brownies at the home of a grower in rural Cazadero. Charges against her were ultimately dropped, but not before she mounted a legal defense in a new county citing medical necessity for her products.
In September 1992, Rathbun testified before the SF Board of Supervisors during a hearing over what would become a new ordinance making marijuana crimes a “lowest priority” for the police. And she also flew to Washington, D.C. to join an ACT UP protest over the first Bush Administration’s medical marijuana policies.
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Rathbun went on to set up shop in Peron’s basement in the Castro as part of a stunt for local news coverage in 1993. They called it Brownie Mary’s Cannabis Cafe, and they were begging to be arrested, even though medical marijuana had technically been legalized by city ordinance two years earlier. This was mid-way through a four-year campaign launched by Peron to get a statewide law passed legalizing medical cannabis. That ultimately came in 1995 with Proposition 215, which opened the door for medical cannabis dispensaries across the state.
When Rathbun died in 1999 at the age of 76, she was remembered as a feisty and fitting mother of the medical cannabis movement.
“It’s hard to hate an old lady,” Rathbun said of herself. “They tried to see ‘Reefer Madness,’ but all they saw was their tiny grandma.”