Lit History is a weekly series that celebrates cannabis history by sharing some of the long forgotten stories of weed’s contribution to culture, community, medicine, and science. Today, writer Brian Applegarth shares about cannabis pioneer and patient rights activist Mary Jane Rathbun, known as Brownie Mary, and her significant role in the cannabis legalization movement.
Mary Jane Rathbun, known as Brownie Mary, was a fixture in the cannabis legalization movement and a poster child for medical marijuana. Her “bust heard ’round the world” in 1990 launched her as the public face of medical marijuana, and was a significant catalyst for the passing of Proposition 215, legalizing medical cannabis in California. Rathbun is one of the most well-known and beloved cannabis activists in the history of the weed community.
1970s: Waitress by Night, Dealer by Day
Rathbun was born in Minnesota in 1922, grew up in Chicago and arrived in San Francisco in the early 1940s by way of Wisconsin. She gave birth to her only daughter, Jenny, in 1955. Jenny was killed in a car accident in the early 1970s.
“Her sympathies were always with the underdog, the poor, the busted and the downtrodden,” John Entwistle Jr., a former legalization advocate and longtime friend of Rathbun, told Marijuana.com. “One could see that she had overcome tremendous difficulties in her own life and that created a natural empathy and sense of compassion for others that was tangible and sincere.”
Entwistle met Rathbun through fellow cannabis advocate Dennis Peron. Entwistle was Perron’s spouse and co-author of Perron’s autobiography, “Memoirs of Dennis Peron: How a Gay Hippy Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis.”
By the early 1970s, Rathbun was working as a part-time as a waitress and making cannabis-infused brownies for the counterculture hippies and LGBT community in San Francisco.. In 1974, Rathbun met Peron over a shared joint at the legendary Cafe Flore. They forged a strong, political partnership and, in 1993, co-authored “Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change.”
1980s: Rathbun’s Two Arrests and Volunteer of the Year Award
“In the early 1980s, Brownie Mary could be found standing on the corner of 18th Street and Castro Street holding a big box filled with cannabis-infused brownies. You could hear her saying, “Magic brownies for sale — magically delicious,’ ” David Goldman, current president of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club, San Francisco Chapter, told Marijuana.com.
Rathbun was 57 years old at the time of her first cannabis-related arrest in 1981. She was sentenced to 500 hours of community service, which she completed in a record 60 days for a hospice program called the Shanti Project. The arrest garnered national media coverage and her local Brownie Mary nickname was amplified beyond the streets of San Francisco’s Castro District. She was arrested for a second time in 1982, while still on probation from her first arrest, for attempting to deliver cannabis-infused brownies to a friend undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
By 1984, Rathbun took to volunteerism and was a weekly fixture at San Francisco General Hospital, volunteering in Ward 86. At that time, the U.S. was entering the height of the AIDS epidemic and Ward 86 was on the front lines in treating the stigmatized and misunderstood syndrome.
“She was regularly making these brownies for the HIV patients at Ward 86 San Francisco General Hospital. They were given to patients gratis,” Goldman said. For her humanitarian efforts, Ward 86 recognized Brownie Mary with its Volunteer of the Year award in 1986.
1990s: ‘The Bust Heard ’Round the World’ and Proposition 215
Rathbun was arrested a third time on July 19, 1992, in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. This arrest became known as “the bust heard ’round the world,” Entwistle said.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 1992, during the raid, authorities found Rathbun “folding 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana into batter.”
“It was a stone-cold bust” Entwistle said. “Baking brownies and distributing marijuana, it [was]completely illegal, you’re going to jail.”
At the time of the bust, Rathbun was 68 years old and looked like the quintessential grandmother next door. Rathbun and her fellow activists recognized the opportunity to bring the cannabis conversation to a national venue.
“She was our first break into the media. We had somebody who can really tell a story that America is going to listen to and love” Entwistle explained in “The Secret Story,” short documentary I directed. “It was real mind blower. The media never heard this. Old ladies want to smoke dope on camera.”
“We decided to pick a fight,” Entwistle said in the documentary of Rathbun’s decision to use the court battle to amplify the cannabis cause. “[A fight] that was designed to go to court, was designed to start a court fight, that we figured we’d win, that would legalize sales of marijuana once and for all.”
In 1992, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made August 25 “Brownie Mary Day” in San Francisco. In many ways, this official declaration acknowledged the profound role that Rathbun played in the cannabis medical legalization movement.
The “bust heard ’round the world” was a turning point in the cannabis legalization movement and a significant event that largely contributed in 1996 to the passing of Proposition 215, legalizing medical cannabis in California. From this bust, a 68-year-old Rathbun emerged as one of the faces of the marijuana legalization movement. By leveraging the media coverage, she and her supporting network of activists shifted the narrative toward the medical cannabis conversation.
Mary Jane Rathbun died April 10, 1999, at the age of 76.
I have long been fascinated with the effect Brownie Mary has had on people’s lives. On several interviews with long time cannabis activists, Rathbun’s name has naturally been brought to the conversation and a sort of emotional reverence will fills the room. I’ve witnessed people sink deep in thought and even been brought to tears simply by bringing up her name. It is something special to witness everytime it happens, and, it is a sign of a life well led, and evidence of the many unbreakable, meaningful connections Rathbun forged throughout her activism.