Women in Cannabis: Brownie Mary

Influential Women in Cannabis: Brownie Mary  

 

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We are continuing our series on influential women in cannabis, where we take a look back at some of the women throughout history that informed cannabis culture through the arts, science, politics and activism. These are but a few examples of trailblazing women whose influence reverberates through canna-culture today.

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Today we are highlighting the life and work of the activist Mary-Jane Rathbun.  

 

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Mary-Jane Rathbun, otherwise known as Brownie Mary, was a trailblazing activist for medical cannabis, and became famous for her cannabis-infused brownies. Contrasting her grandmother-like appearance, she was said to have had a mouth like a trucker but a heart of gold. This is the story of Brownie Mary. 

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Cannabis Brownies

 

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Mary-Jane Rathbun (yes, that is her real birth name), was born in 1922 in Chicago and raised in Minnesota. Rathbun attended Catholic school as a youth, but would eventually drop out in her teens. During her time in school, Rathbun’s anti-establishment streak had already begun. At the age of 13, she is said to have taken a swing at nun after being caned for misbehavior.  

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"I'm not a criminal. I did nothing wrong. I was helping my kids. We desperately need medical marijuana in this country.." —  Brownie Mary

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Rathbun became a political activist early in life, raising awareness for labor and abortion rights. During World War II, she relocated to San Fransico. Rathbun was briefly married to a USO officer, which produced a child before they divorced. Tragically, her daughter was killed in a car crash at the age of 22 in the early 70’s. Friends of Rathbun’s have speculated that her daughter’s death was a catalyst for Mary-Jane's renewed focus on political activism during this time.  

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Brownie Mary

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To make a little extra income, Mary-Jane began selling cannabis-infused brownies to San Francisco locals, advertising by way of posters and flyers. She sold her brownies out of her house and by the early 80’s was baking about 1600 brownies per month! The ads caught the attention of the police, which led to her first arrest at the age of 57. This arrest made the papers. Journalists wrote of her flowered baking apron and motherly appearance upon opening the door to the arresting officers. Her look contrasted the stereotypical long-haired hippie types, amplifying public interest in the story. On possession and illegal cannabis sale charges, Rathbun was punished with 500 hours of volunteer work.  

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"They can't drop the charges without saying I haven't done anything wrong. And if they do that, I'm going to ask for my marijuana back." —  Brownie Mary

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She volunteered at soup kitchens and at LGBTQ+ thrift stores, completing all of the mandatory volunteer work in just 60 days. Rathbun would continue her volunteer work in the gay community after her punishment had been completed. In the 1980’s she joined the Shanti Project, which was an activist group organized to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic that was killing people in the gay community at an alarming rate. Rathbun, still making and selling brownies after her arrest, saw how her brownies had a positive medical effect for those afflicted with AIDS or suffering from cancer, while volunteering at San Francisco General Hospital.

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Brownie Mary and the LGBTQ+ Community

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She began to bake truckloads of her brownies for these patients, and other volunteers donated cannabis to the non-profit effort. Mary-Jane, referred to these folks as her, “kids,” at a time when many in power simply refused to address the issue due to personal prejudice and indifference. Rathbun was arrested again in 1982 for delivering brownies to a cancer patient at the hospital. The arrests did little to stop her volunteering and activism, for which she received a volunteer of the year award from that same hospital in 1986.  

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"It's all about politics, and it's stupid." —  Brownie Mary

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In the early 90’s Rathbun continued her activism through political lobbying for medical cannabis legalization alongside other prominent figures in San Francisco’s canna-culture. She is said to have had a great deal of influence in the passing of 1991’s “Proposition P,” which protected doctors in California from being punished for prescribing medical cannabis. In 1992, Rathbun was again arrested, which received widespread press attention before the she was acquitted. However, unlike previous arrests, the press lauded her as an activist for medical cannabis, gay rights, and AIDS awareness. Journalists wrote of her compassion as she offered love, support, and encouragement alongside patients receiving the news that they’d tested positive for AIDS.  

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Brownie Mary on High Times Magazine

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Later that same year the San Francisco board of supervisors declared August 25th, as Brownie Mary Day in recognition of her volunteering work at the hospital. Rathbun helped open the first medical cannabis dispensary in America, after legislation was passed to make California the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996.  

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Rathbun passed away in 1999 at 79 from a heart attack. Hundreds of people showed up for her wake. Ever forward thinking, Rathbun said shortly before her death stating, “When and if they legalize it, I’ll sell my brownie recipe to Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines and take the profits to buy an old Victorian home for my kids with AIDS.” Rathbun’s legend and legacy live on today as cannabis is legalized in a growing number of U.S. states. Her work also continues to inspire research and innovation in medical cannabis research. Perhaps most important of all, Rathbun influenced prejudiced public perception of the AIDS epidemic by embracing the community with compassion and empathy during a time when government seemed content to turn a blind eye.

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  • Mar 24, 2022
  • Category: Articles
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