It was the late 1980s. The AIDS crisis was devastating San Francisco. Hospital beds in Ward 86 at San Francisco General Hospital were full, and with an average life expectancy of only 18 months, thousands were dying of the disease each year. Clad in polyester pants, Mary Jane Rathbun would walk up and down the hallways, handing out marijuana-filled brownies to alleviate patients’ suffering.
Rathbun, known by her moniker “Brownie Mary,” was one of the first cannabis activists to emerge from the 1960s and ’70s. While working as a waitress at IHOP, she developed a recipe for cannabis-laced brownies, which she called “magically delicious,” and sold on the streets of the Castro. Business was good, and by the late 1970s, she was baking several dozen each day to meet demand.
Along with the high times that the brownies would give her customers, Rathbun noticed a reduction in pain and nausea among those who were chronically ill. This inspired her to begin making trips to local cancer and AIDS wards. As she became more famous, growers began donating large bags of weed toward her brownie supply fund — which, after retiring from IHOP, had been funded solely with her $612-per-month Social Security checks.
Her work eventually drew attention from the San Francisco Police Department, who raided her public-housing apartment in 1981 to discover more than 18 pounds of cannabis. Legend has it that upon opening the door, Rathbun told the police, “I thought you guys were coming.” She was 57 years old when she was arrested for the first time, and the case made national headlines.
The 500 hours of community service she was required to perform as part of her sentence came naturally to Rathbun, and she burned through them in a record 60 days. She volunteered at a gay thrift store, for a hospice program called the Shanti Project, and at the Martin de Porres soup kitchen, all the while continuing her work at Ward 86. The hospital honored her with a Volunteer of the Year award in 1986.
“I didn’t go into this thinking I would be a hero,” Rathbun told the Chicago Tribune in a 1993 interview. “It was something I wanted to do to help my gay friends, and it just spiraled.”
But Rathbun wasn’t satisfied with being a volunteer. In the 1990s, she began campaigning for marijuana legalization alongside Dennis Peron, another cannabis activist she met over a joint at Cafe Flore in 1974. She was a familiar face at Board of Supervisors meetings, often clad in cannabis-themed outfits, with her token gold marijuana-leaf necklace front and center.
That work paid off. In 1991, Proposition P passed with 76 percent of the city’s vote. While not a hard-and-fast law, the measure established that physicians would not be penalized for prescribing cannabis. Five years later, voters passed Proposition 215, making California the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
“I know from smoking pot for over 30 years that this is a medicine that works,” Rathbun told the Associated Press in a 1992 interview. “It works for the wasting syndrome. The kids have no appetite, but when they eat a brownie, they get out of bed and make themselves some food, And for chemotherapy, they eat half a brownie before a session, and when they get out they eat the other half. It eases the pain. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Rathbun’s work to assist cancer and AIDS patients also caught the attention of medical professionals. In 1997, doctors Donald Abrams (from UCSF) and Rick Doblin (of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) published the study “Short-Term Effects of Cannabinoids in Patients with HIV-1 Infection.” It stated that “marijuana did not hurt the immune system, did not increase viral load, did not negatively interact with the protease inhibitors, and actually did facilitate increased caloric intake as well as weight gain.”
This study marked the first attempt to study marijuana’s effects on people with HIV, and at the time, it was one of the most comprehensive studies done about the effects of marijuana on the immune system.
Eventually, Rathbun’s own health problems caught up with her, and she wasn’t able to bake anymore. A bad case of osteoarthritis, combined with colon cancer and artificial knees ended her career as a cook. Three years before her death, she co-authored a cookbook with Peron, Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change, which you can still find at anarchist bookstores today. But be forewarned: Her famous brownie recipe is not included.
“When and if they legalize it, I’ll sell my brownie recipe to Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines, and take the profits and buy an old Victorian for my kids with AIDS,” Rathbun told The New York Times. But the recipe is still missing.
Rathbun passed away in 1999 at the age of 77 at Laguna Honda Hospital after suffering a heart attack, although her legacy continues.
“Brownie Mary was a hero for our time, in a world with so few heroes,” San Francisco attorney Larry Bittner told the Chronicle after her death. “She, like so many strong women from the past — for example, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman — was dedicated to helping others. … She will rest in peace — she earned it.”
If all this talk of gooey, relaxing, chocolate-heavy brownies makes your mouth water, we can help you. While this isn’t Rathburn’s famous recipe, it’s sure to do the trick.
“Magically Delicious” Brownies
1 ⅛ cup cannabutter
½ cup 70 percent dark chocolate, chopped
2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
½ tsp salt
First, make the cannabutter. Combine 1 cup water, 1 pound unsalted butter, and 1 ½ ounces of ground cannabis flower in a slow cooker. Simmer on low for eight hours, stirring occasionally. (The longer the simmer, the more cannabinoids will be released.) Once fully simmered, use a cheesecloth or fine strainer to filter out any plant products. Refrigerate in a covered container. If water separates, discard it.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a nine-inch-by-nine-inch cake tin, and line it with baking paper. Heat the cannabutter over low heat, and when mostly melted, add the chocolate and stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Remove from heat, stir in sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time, and add vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients, mix thoroughly, then pour into your cake tin. Bake for 40 minutes, then let cool before consuming.
As you drift into a happy, relaxed place, think fondly of Brownie Mary’s legacy, and all she’s done for our cannabis movement.