Brownie Mary: The Florence Nightingale of Cannabis

Early Life

Mary Jane Rathbun was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 22, 1922 to a conservative Irish Catholic family. Raised in Minneapolis Minnesota, Mary showed a bold disregard for authority at an early age. When she was 13 she fought back against a nun who tried to cane her. Knowing this, it is not surprising that activism became her calling. What is a surprise is the impact Mary created among the cannabis community. This young woman channeled her rage, frustration and disappointment in the system to change cannabis preconceptions. “Brownie Mary” is one of the most iconic cannabis activists in history.

Leaving home as a teenager, Mary worked as a waitress where she ran into fellow activist Dennis Peron in 1974. Immediately, Mary began selling her “magical brownies” for profit out of her house. Mary’s goods were well known the advertised flyers she left around the San Francisco area. After an undercover officer discovered Mary’s operation, her home was raided where officers found 18 pounds of cannabis and 54 dozen cannabis brownies(read that again: 54 dozen, as in 648 individual brownies).  

Allegedly Mary– with her typical wit– replied to the officers, “I thought you were coming.” While standing in the face of armed thugs defending an unjust cannabis prohibition, Mary stood her ground. She was 57 when she was first arrested. When the media got a hold of this motherly pot dealer, it must have come as a shock. She was not your prototypical drug dealer. With a grandmotherly look and a clever wit, the media dubbed her “Brownie Mary”. She was sentenced to three years probation with the added punishment of 500 hours of community service. Ultimately, she chose to work with the Shanti Project, a support group for people with HIV/AIDS.

Activism

Unprecedentedly, Mary completed her 500 hours of required service within 60 days of working with the Shanti Project. She chose to stay after her mandatory service was complete. At the time she had worked with the program, she had lost her daughter due to an automobile accident. Such a loss motivated Mary to take care of the San Francisco community. To paraphrase Khalil Gibran, Mary found the secret of death in the heart of life.

She carved an undeniable figure of the loving grandmother, looking after her family. While working with the program, Mary noticed that her brownies were helping with the wasting syndrome associated with HIV/AIDS and even cancer patients. Her products were so helpful people donated cannabis allowing her to bake larger quantities and distribute them to the sick people free of charge. 

Mary was unlike anyone at the time, even making home deliveries to patients suffering from chemotherapy. After another arrest for carrying cannabis, Mary spent the next seven years volunteering weekly in the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital. She assisted with passing Proposition P, a cannabis policy that San Francisco recommended to the state and California Medical Association.

Legacy

The policy pushed for medical cannabis access. Additionally, it the policy protected physicians who recommend cannabis as medicine. This proposition set the stage for Mary’s national fame. After her third arrest, prosecutors decided to charge her putting her in national headlines. Media outlets like AP, Retuers and CNN distributed stories about her arrests and her campaign to legalize medical cannabis. Her grandmotherly persona certainly helped bring momentum to the movement as her visage continued to garner national support. Mary Jane Rathbun and her court case in 1922 became a rallying cry for legalization. It was,”a cause celebre for those fighting to legalize marijuana for medical use. . . a heroine to people with AIDS and cancer.”

In the end, “Brownie” Mary passed away at the age of 76 on April 10, 1999. 300 people attended a candlelight vigil in her honor. Mary did not live to see the national impact cannabis legalization would take. But then again, I doubt she even cared about the awards. At the end of the day she was the loving grandmother figure who wanted to help those in need. While attending her funeral, friend and district attorney Terence Hallinan tells the crowd that Mary Jane Rathbun was a hero who will one day be known as the “Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.” Her legacy is felt nationwide. For example, her work inspired others like Donald Abrams and Rick Doblin to develop protocols to test the effects of cannabis on appetite and body weight. 

Not everyone is born great, some have greatness thrust upon them. I like to think that Mary Jane Rathbun was neither. She knew what she was about, making choices everyday to better the lives of others. From a troublesome teenager to a cannabis legend, “Brownie” Mary spent the early 1980s becoming one of the initial cannabis edible production lines.

Notably, Mary treated people like her kids, not patients, which explains the strong bonds forged with medical professionals, patients and legal professionals. Those interested in trying her recipes can find her book Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook. Mary Rathbun was no knucklehead drug dealer. She was a hero who looked into the dark abyss of cannabis prohibition and took punches with a smile on her face.  She fought the law, and the law didn’t win. Cheers to you Mary. Hopefully, we continue to live up to your legacy.