Chronic Haze is proud to bring you another installment in our cannabis activists series. Today, we’ll take a look at the life and legacy of Brownie Mary.
Mary Jane Rathbun, a.k.a. Brownie Mary, is something of a legend in cannabis activism. Throughout her life, she was resolute in her mission to support marginalized groups and stand against authority. Today, we pay respect to her legacy with a short look at her accolades and the impact she made in the cannabis activism scene.
Born in 1922 to a conservative Irish Catholic family in Chicago, Rathbun was known to oppose authority from a young age. At age 13, she fought back against a nun that tried to cane her. She left her home as a teenager and worked as a waitress for many years. Rathbun was drawn to the world of activism early on, travelling to Wisconsin to support the right for miners to unionize, as well as Minneapolis to support women’s right to abortion.
During World War II, Rathbun moved to San Francisco and married Joseph Del Graven, whom she met at a United Service Organization dance, and the two moved to Nevada. They would end up getting divorced, but had a daughter named Peggy in 1955. Sadly, Peggy would be killed by a drunk driver, and Rathbun subsequently moved back to San Francisco.
In 1974, Rathbun met cannabis activist Dennis Peron at Cafe Flore in San Francisco. The two shared a joint, and it was here that Peron learned about Rathbun’s side hustle: selling cannabis-infused brownies for a few dollars apiece. Peron would then start selling her brownies at his Big Top cannabis shop. By the early 1980s, Rathbun was baking over 50 dozen brownies a day. Unfortunately. Police discovered what she was doing and conducted a raid on her home in 1981. At the age of 57, she was arrested for possession of cannabis and other drugs, and received the nickname “Brownie Mary” in her media coverage.
Rathbun was sentenced to three years probation and 500 hours of community service. This time saw her providing her services to places in San Francisco’s gay community. This included the Shanti Project, a support group for people with AIDS/HIV. She completed her hours in only 60 days, but continued to assist the community. She continued to see brownie sales, mostly by gay men who found that cannabis helped manage certain symptoms of AIDS. During this time, people would donate free cannabis to Rathbun, and she donated her brownies to sick individuals for free.
On her way to deliver brownies to a friend with cancer, Rathbun encountered one of the same officers that arrested her in 1981. She was searched, and arrested once again for possession and violation of her probation. Luckily, the charges were dropped and her activism continued, with her volunteering in the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital. In the 1990s, she was invited by Peron to speak at meetings for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Here, she spoke about her experience distributing brownies to AIDS sufferers and seeing the benefits brought on by cannabis.
Rathbun’s activism would continue in full force for the next few years. She assisted in working on Proposition P. which helped put pressure on the State of California to make medicinal cannabis more available. She was even arrested a third time while making brownies at a grower’s house, for which she was acquitted. Sadly, after her many years of service, Rathbun died on April 10, 1999 due to a heart attack, and a candlelight vigil was held in her honour.
Upon her passing, several hundred people gathered at Rathbun’s memorial, where it was stated that she would “be remembered as the Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.” This has proved to be true, as Rathbun’s dedication to others has cemented her name in the world of activism.
Rathbun is seen as a hero not only by the cannabis community, but by the queer community as well, specifically those who have suffered from AIDS. In fact, she was honored as the Grand Marshal at the San Francisco Pride Parade in 1997 along with fellow cannabis activist Peron, for their contributions toward combatting the AIDS crisis.
Overall, Rathbun has been one of the most impactful activists for medical cannabis as well as the queer community. She’s even a big part of why infused brownies are so ingrained into cannabis culture. So next time you’re eating a cannabis brownie, remember the deep and storied history behind the woman who started making them.
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Also, if you’d like to learn about more cannabis activists, check out this blog post on Saya Takagi, a prominent cannabis activist from Japan!