Often called the Florence Nightingale of the medical cannabis movement, “Brownie Mary” was one of the first truly outspoken advocates for cannabis as medicine. Born in 1922 to a devoutly religious family, Mary found her ideals and values were in conflict with those of her family, and left home in her teenage years. She was an advocate for people’s rights from the get-go. In the late 1930’s, she campaigned for the rights of miner’s to form unions, and in the 1940’s she traveled to Minneapolis to promote abortion rights for women.
But Mary really hit her stride as an advocate in 1974; at the age of 52, she smoked her first joint while living in the Castro District of San Francisco. She took a liking to cannabis right away, and began to supplement her income as a waitress at IHOP by selling her ‘Magic Brownies’.
(photo by Maureen Hurley)
Mary was arrested for the first time in 1981 when her home was raided – she was 59 years old. She was found to be in possession of 18 pounds of weed and over 50 Magic Brownies. It is said when Mary opened the door to the police, she told them, “I thought you guys were coming.” She pleaded guilty to 9 counts of possession, and was sentenced to 3 years probation and 500 hours of community service. Ever an activist, she completed her community service over the span of 60 days working with the Shanti Project, an AIDS/HIV support group in Castro.
(In the 3 times Brownie Mary was brought to court over cannabis possession, she was never jailed and was only served a sentence once. It seemed no jury felt right sending a grandmotherly woman like her to jail.)
During her time with the Shanti Project, she noticed that cannabis had a positive effect on the wasting symptoms associated with cancer and AIDS. By this time she was retired, and she began baking and giving her Magic Brownies away to cancer and AIDS victims. After the loss of her own daughter, she referred to these patients as “her kids”. She used her once-monthly Social Security paycheck of $650 to purchase baking supplies, and infused her brownies with cannabis that was donated to her by local growers.
In 1984, Brownie Mary began volunteering in the AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital; in 1986, the hospital named her Volunteer of the Year for her good works. In 1991, she helped pen and pass Proposition P – which made cannabis available for medical use, and protected physicians who were prescribing the herb in the city of San Francisco. She also helped to open the United State’s very first medical dispensary, The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, at age 70!
Mary’s third arrest happened that same year in Sonoma county, and garnered the most media attention of all of them; she became the face of the medical cannabis movement at 70 years old. She pleaded guilty to 2 counts of felony possession saying, “My kids need this, and I’m ready to go to jail for my principles…I’m not going to cut any deals with them. If I go to jail, I go to jail.”. Brownie Mary was eventually acquitted, as she was able to testify that her “deliveries were made to assist others in need, not to advance individual greed.”
During her twilight years, in 1996 (at age 74) she helped pass Prop 215 in CA, which set the groundwork for the Medical Cannabis laws folks are familiar with today. Prop 215 allowed patients to possess and cultivate cannabis with a physician’s recommendation. In 1997, she was asked to be the Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade.
(photo by Jim Wilson for the NYT)
In 1999, the self-proclaimed atheist and anarchist Brownie Mary Rathbun passed away. By the time she passed, she had survived colon cancer and osteoarthritis, and walked with the assistance of artificial knees. She continued to consume cannabis brownies up until the end of her life, claiming they helped with her pain and allowed her to walk. Her funeral was attended by over 300 people, and a candlelight vigil was held in the Castro District in her honor.
Were it not for this fearless woman, who apparently loved to curse and often showed up in court bedecked in pro-cannabis flare, we may not have the legal cannabis industry we know and love today. Let’s try to continue Brownie Mary’s good works by being ambassadors for this noble plant and helping folks find the healing power of pot!