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How Rebel Grandma Helped Legalize Medical Cannabis In California With Brownies

This lady surely raised the concept of “comfort food” to a whole new level. Her name was Mary Jane Rathbun, but any San Franciscan old-timer can tell you she was often called Brownie Mary.

She was kind-hearted and so famous in Frisco for her brownies that she needed no last name.

68-year-old Mary Jane Rathbun appeared in Municipal Court in Santa Rosa the same day that San Francisco declared “Brownie Mary Day”. Photo: Mary Jane Rathbun/Handout

An indispensable cannabis activist Mary Jane started to sell brownies with marijuana in 70s to make some extra money. Other bakers combined chocolate and pot long before Rathbun — remember, for instance, the so-called hashish fudge” by the recipe of writer Alice B. Toklas.

But Mary Jane sold her brownies publicly and even printed flyers for customers. It was a matter of time before she attracted police attention. The first arrest happened in January 1981.

Mary Jane and Dennis Peron, a leader in the movement for the legalization of cannabis throughout the 1990s. Photo: Green Guide Tours

A grandmotherly appearance of Rathbun, who was 57 at the time, fascinated reporters that covered arrests. Her look and her activity made a shocking contrast, for Mary Jane not only baked marijuana cookies, but also was a long-time pothead.

Once she arrived in court wearing a cannabis leaf pin, and friends remembered that Mary loved to smoke pot alone in her apartment, completely naked.

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Brownie Mary had this anarchist spirit ever since she was kicked out of Catholic school at the age of 13, when a nun tried to cane her, and Mary fought back.

Rathbun then moved out of her home and found job as a waitress, and soon got carried away by social activism. She campaigned for the right of miners to form unions in Wisconsin and promoted abortion rights for women in Minneapolis.

When Mary Jane moved to San Francisco, she met cannabis legalization activists, shared a joint with them and stuck with the movement.

Mary was kind-hearted and so famous in Frisco for her brownies that she needed no last name.

After the first arrest, Mary was committed to hundreds of hours of community service. She did not quit selling brownies.

Rathbun worked and lived in Castro District, and most of customers that bought her “magic brownies” were gay men. In 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control informed about new strange disease, she already witnessed a full-blown epidemic of AIDS.

Ward 86 was on the 6th floor. Photo: Robert Gorter/Robert Gorter, MD, PHD Personal Blog

Brownie Mary became a volunteer at Ward 86 of San Francisco General Hospital, a division that was simply called “AIDS Clinic”. Rathbun noticed that her “magic brownies” had a side effect — AIDS and cancer patients experienced less nausea and regained appetite.

In 1984, Mary Jane was baking more than 1600 brownies per month, as one fellow activist estimated. One of the hospital nurses called her a “shining beacon”, and patients told that brownies helped them to regain quality of life. In 1986, SFGH honored Mary with a “Volunteer of the Year” award.

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Soon the name of Brownie Mary gained political power. She banded with marijuana activist Dennis Peron and lobbied for medical marijuana legalization. Mary helped to pass San Francisco’s Proposition P, which freed doctors from persecution for prescribing medical marijuana.

In 1992, she was arrested again, and that time affair took massive coverage. Media portrayed her as a courageous activist, a woman who set next to AIDS patients and encouraged them to fight for their lives.

The same year, the city authorities declared August 25 to be Brownie Mary Day.

The cover of Rathbun’s cookbook Photo: San Francisco Public Library

Eventually all the charges were lifted from Rathbun and she continued her work. Mary helped to open America’s first medical marijuana dispensary and pass Proposition 215 in 1996. It made California the first state that legalized medical marijuana.

When Mary Jane Rathbun died of a heart attack in 1999, hundreds of people came to her house to honor Brownie Mary’s memory, the woman who was ready to go to jail for her “kids”. So she called patients with AIDS and cancer who waited for her brownies in Ward 86.

Sources: Maureen Hurley, Chicago Tribune, Green Rush DailyRobert Gorter, MD, PHD Personal Blog

Featured Image: Maureen Hurley

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