In the 1970s, Mary Jane Rathbun started selling “magically delicious” pot brownies as a way to share her love of cannabis and supplement her income as an IHOP waitress. Soon business was booming, and “Brownie Mary”—a grandmotherly figure with curly gray hair, a kind-hearted disposition, and a sailor’s vocabulary—quickly became a beloved figure in the Castro, San Francisco’s predominantly gay neighborhood. Even before the AIDS crisis hit, Brownie Mary served as a kind of mother figure to countless young people who’d left their families behind in pursuit of a community that accepted them and celebrated their lifestyle.
As the AIDS crisis grew deadly and widespread, however, Rathbun noticed two things quickly: the then little-understood disease vastly disproportionately affected the young gay men she’d taken to thinking of as her children, and cannabis proved incredibly effective at combating their symptoms and restoring their appetites. So Brownie Mary began volunteering as a nurse’s assistant and making her brownies available to patients for free.
The police got involved for the first time in 1981, when the SFPD raided her apartment in a public housing project for senior citizens and confiscated 18 pounds of pot. But despite this arrest (and two more to follow), she never stopped baking and distributing her magically delicious brownies.
“If the narcs think I’m going to stop baking pot brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go fuck themselves in Macy’s window,” Brownie Mary announced to deafening applause at a rally held after she was released from custody for the third time.
In 1986, San Francisco General hospital named her Volunteer of the Year. At the same time, Brownie Mary worked with close friend and fellow cannabis activist Dennis Peron on Proposition P, which passed in 1991. It included a recommendation from the City of San Francisco to the State of California and the California Medical Association to legalize medical cannabis and protected physicians in the city who prescribed medical cannabis from prosecution. This led directly to the passage of Prop 215, the first statewide medical cannabis law, in 1996.
To hear the rest of Brownie Mary’s incredible story of compassion and perseverance, check out the latest episode of the hit new podcast Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean.