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The Story of Brownie Mary

March 1, 2021 in General News

Brownie Mary

March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate the achievements that women have made to furthering the awareness, importance, and acceptance of medical cannabis as a treatment option, I will be spotlighting Mary Jane Rathbun, aka Brownie Mary. She started making cannabis brownies to support herself financially. This led to her tireless work with the HIV/AIDS community in the 1980s which transformed her into a medical cannabis activist. This article will chronicle her story.

Brownie Mary’s Childhood

Rathbun was born in 1922 in Chicago but was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis. She was a social justice activist from a young age who cared deeply about and fought for causes such as abortion rights and unionization. She left her parents’ home in her teens and supported herself by waitressing at the International House of Pancakes. She waitressed for most of her adult life to support herself.

She moved to San Francisco during WWII where she met a man at a USO dance. They married and had a daughter, Peggy, but the marriage did not last long and they divorced. Mary and Peggy lived briefly in Reno, Nevada, but after Peggy was killed by a drunk driver in the early 1970s, Mary returned to San Francisco. That is where she met and bonded over a joint with fellow cannabis activist, Dennis Peron, in 1974 at Cafe Flore in the Castro district, a predominantly gay area.

Still waitressing and strapped for cash, she started making cannabis brownies out of her house to supplement her income. She relied on fliers posted on neighborhood bulletin boards to get the word out. It wasn’t long before Dennis Peron started selling her brownies at his Big Top pot supermarket located on Castro Street. Peron’s first encounter with law enforcement resulted in a raid on his business in 1977 which left him with a bullet in his leg. By the early 1980s, legend has it that Mary was making as many as 600 brownies a day, selling them out of her home or from a basket on the streets of the Castro District.

Mary’s First Arrest

An undercover police officer became aware of Mary’s brownie enterprise and her home was raided on January 14, 1981. Police seized more than 18 lbs of cannabis, 650 brownies and several other drugs. She was reported to have told the police, “I thought you guys were coming.” It was at this point that the media gave her the moniker “Brownie Mary.” She pleaded guilty to nine counts of possession, received three years of probation and was sentenced to 500 hours of community service. This event was a huge turning point in Mary’s life as she started working with the Shanti Project, a support group for those with HIV/AIDS, to fulfill her community service hours.

Mary’s HIV/AIDS Work

Working with the HIV/AIDS community was a real eye opener for Mary. She quickly came to understand that those with this life-threatening disease were not only shunned by their families but also abandoned by the medical community. Now that Peggy was no longer in her life, she treated the members of the HIV/AIDS community like her children.

She continued to make her brownies for her “adopted family” which eased their pain, reduced nausea and increased their appetite. She was also told by those with cancer undergoing chemotherapy that the brownies were invaluable in relieving many of the side effects of the treatments.

Mary’s Second Arrest

While delivering a cannabis brownie to a cancer patient at the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital where she was a regular visitor, Mary was arrested in 1992. Despite her arrests and regular warnings from the police, she was never dissuaded from continuing to provide much needed relief to those who were suffering as she increased her brownie production. Selling brownies was no longer just a way to make ends meet. She realized how crucial medical cannabis was for those in pain. She used her Social Security checks and donations from local dealers to fund her brownie operation.

Mary’s Medical Cannabis Activism

Rathbun spoke at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1992, extolling the benefits of medical cannabis. As a result, the Board members agreed to partially decriminalize cannabis by reducing the priority of arrests and prosecution of those using it to their lowest level.

Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron Team Up To Push For Cannabis Legalization

In the early 1990s, Peron attempted to educate those running HIV/AIDS advocacy groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) about the benefits of using cannabis to relieve the symptoms of the disease. He received less than an enthusiastic response. As a result, he enlisted the help of Rathbun to talk about her firsthand experiences and the difference it made to those with HIV/AIDS. That was the beginning of a shift in attitude towards medical cannabis as a treatment option.

In 1991, Rathbun and Peron collaborated on pushing for the passage of Proposition P which made medical cannabis available in San Francisco. It also protected those doctors who prescribed it from being penalized. Mary showed up regularly at board meetings, decked out in cannabis jewelry and pins, advocating for its usage. The measure passed overwhelmingly on November 5, 1991. In 1996, Proposition 215 was passed by California voters who made their state the first in the US to legalize medical cannabis. This spurred Washington, Oregon and Alaska to quickly follow suit with the passage of their own medical cannabis initiatives.

Rathbun’s advocacy inspired medical professionals to begin conducting research studies on the role that cannabis played on the immune system of HIV/AIDS patients. A 2003 milestone study elucidated the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for those with HIV/AIDS.

Mary Jane Rathbun’s Legacy

In 1992, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors honored Mary Jane Rathbun by making August 25th “Brownie Mary Day” which is still celebrated in San Francisco. In 1996, Peron and Rathbun collaborated on a book: Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change. It did not include her famous brownie recipe. Rathbun died of a heart attack in 1999. However, her immense contribution to cannabis law reform endures. In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 34, known as the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act. The bill exempted compassionate care programs from paying state cannabis taxes. These programs provide free cannabis for low-income patients with serious medical conditions.

Sources:, Who Is Brownie Mary?, Brownie Mary

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