Did you know that one of the most prolific medical cannabis activists began her career at the age of 57? Not only was Brownie Mary an advocate for cannabis, but she was also a strong ally during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Plus, she was one of the driving forces behind the popularization of the pot brownie.
Meet Brownie Mary, born as (ironically) Mary Jane Rathburn (December 22, 1922 – April 10, 1999). She identified as an anarchist, atheist, and activist. Interested in social change from a young age, she first became involved with mining unions and abortion rights. She moved to San Francisco during the Second World War, married and then divorced. She raised her daughter, Peggy, in Reno, Nevada. Peggy tragically passed away at the age of 22, and Mary moved back to San Francisco.
The Birth of Brownie Mary
Mary waitressed at the International House of Pancakes for most of her life. In the 1970s, she began selling pot brownies as a side hustle. It is estimated that she made approximately five hundred brownies per day. The community of the Castro District in San Francisco soon took notice of her (with a little help from fliers she distributed), and in 1974 she befriended fellow cannabis advocate and LGBTQ+ activist Dennis Peron.
By the 1980s, Mary had gained quite a bit of notability in the community. She soon got her nickname of “Brownie Mary”. Unfortunately, she also attracted the attention of the police. An undercover officer arrested her in 1981. The subsequent raid of her home uncovered 18 pounds of cannabis, 54 dozen cannabis brownies, and an assortment of other illegal substances.
This arrest resulted in her receiving 500 hours of community service. She spent a great deal of that time working with the Shanti Project,, which at the time focussed primarily on relief for the AIDS epidemic and cancer patients. She soon noticed that a great deal of her brownie customers were gay men, many of which suffered from AIDS. Cannabis was a relief to the victims of AIDS, as it primarily helped to keep appetite up and ease pain. Mary soon began to distribute the brownies for free to those suffering from AIDS.
1982 saw Mary arrested once again for possession, but she was unrepentant. She continued her work, and in the 1990s invited by Dennis Peron to speak at the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) about her experience with cannabis as relief for AIDS symptoms. Soon, she and Dennis joined forces to campaign for Proposition P in 1991 to legalize medical marijuanna and protect doctors from repercussions for prescribing it. The proposition passed with support from 79% of the voters in San Francisco in 1991.
Mary’s final arrest came in 1992, where she was and released on bail. She continued her activism, campaigning against the restrictions that the George H.W. Bush administration was imposing on medical marijana. In 1996, she and Dennis Peron collaborated to write Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change. Tragically, her famous “magically delicious” brownie recipe is not included in the book.
Brownie Mary’s Legacy
She passed away due to a heart attack in 1999, and hundreds of people attended her vigil. Her friend, Attorney Terence Hallinan, told the attending crowd that she would “one day be remembered as the Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement”.
Hailed as a “foul-mouthed angel”, her legacy still lives on. In 1992, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared August 25 “Brownie Mary Day” to acknowledge her work with AIDS patients. Her work paved the way for contemporary medical marijanna use, and inspired many modern studies for its medical applications. It is speculated that the loss of her daughter inspired her to adopt the AIDS community as her own children. According to Mary herself in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “I didn’t go into this thinking I would be a hero. It was something I wanted to do to help my gay friends, and it just spiraled.”