Cannabis Kingpins: Masters of Marijuana – Part 3: Mary Jane Rathbun


Healthcare workers around the world regularly risk their lives, yet only those close to them ever know their name. More than one world leader has used their example to suggest that “Not all superheros wear capes – some wear scrubs and gowns.” It is the same when looking at men and women who have made extraordinary contributions to the world.

These days, a lot of people know who Kim Kardashian is, but will give you a quizzical look if you mention the name ‘Jonas Salk.’ In case you also draw a blank, Salk discovered and developed one of the first successful polio vaccines. He saved countless lives and didn’t try to gouge people for money. Big Pharma did that instead. To be fair to Kardashian, Salk never wrote a book with an alliterating title (Kardashian Konfidential.)

In any case, Mary Jane Rathbun is another example of a hero who didn’t fit the traditional image of one. Better known as ‘Brownie’ Mary, Rathbun had an unassuming physical presence. However, she was a giant in the history of medical marijuana activism. She is the reason why you’re getting stoned from a hash brownie as you read this! In this latest edition of ‘Cannabis Kingpins,’ we look at Rathbun’s remarkable life and contribution to the herb.

Mary Jane – The Early Years

She didn’t embark on her marijuana quest until later in life. However, Mary Jane became a social activist and rebel from an early age. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 22, 1922, her Irish Catholic mother gave her what proved an apt name. The family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Mary Jane attended a Catholic School.

With her rebellious nature already developed, the strict nature of her schooling was a bad match. Conflict was inevitable and led to an altercation with a nun at the age of 13. The nun attempted to cane the young student, who responded by striking the teacher! Soon after this incident, Mary Jane dropped out of school and left home to become a waitress. She remained in this role for approximately half a century.

Far from being content with this career, Mary Jane used every opportunity to engage in activism. As a teenager, she often traveled from Chicago, where she worked, to Wisconsin, to campaign for miners’ union rights. In the late 1940s, Mary Jane promoted abortion rights for women in Minneapolis. It was an extraordinary step at that time in the nation’s history.

She moved to San Francisco during the Second World War and met her future husband. Alas, while the marriage yielded a daughter, it was doomed to failure and resulted in divorce. Mary Jane experienced a profound tragedy with the death of her daughter, Peggy, in 1974. Many people believe this heartache resulted in Rathbun’s change of course.

It is worth noting that Peggy gave her mother a cannabis leaf pin. Perhaps Peggy’s untimely death at the hands of a drunk driver caused Mary Jane to devote herself to marijuana in memory of Peggy.

Brownie Mary – The Beginning

It’s a story that comes straight from DC Comics or Marvel. An individual experiences a tremendous personal loss, and undergoes a change. They ‘become’ an entirely new person, like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman after witnessing the murder of his parents. Whether it was the death of Peggy, or something else, the activist known as Mary Jane Rathbun transformed into a superhero. Cannabis was her greatest weapon!

According to most reports, Mary Jane started selling brownies laced with marijuana in the early 1970s. It is erroneously believed that Rathbun ‘invented’ the hash brownie. In reality, it is impossible to say who did. Some experts think the honor should fall to Alice B. Toklas, who published her famous cookbook in 1954. Haschisch fudge was among the recipes. However, it didn’t contain chocolate. Instead, the ingredients included figs, dates, sugar, weed, nuts, and a spice blend.

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Rathbun created her version of the brownie, and by 1974, she gained a reputation in San Francisco for selling her delicious, illegal treat. At this time, she worked as a waitress in an IHOP outlet. Typically, she sold the brownies from her house. However, there were occasions where Mary Jane couldn’t resist taking a risk. In these situations, she would sell them out of a basket at a supermarket!

By the end of the decade, demand was so high that she sold around 600 brownies a week. The charge was $20 for a dozen. Mary Jane made little attempt to conceal her activities. In fact, she advertised her wares as ‘magically delicious’ brownies on San Francisco bulletin boards. It was only a matter of time before the police intervened.

Arrested Development

During the 70s, Rathbun became friends with Dennis Peron, subject of Part 2 in this series. Peron sold the brownies from his supermarket. The police raided the place in 1977 and shot Peron in the leg. Mary Jane escaped the long arm of the law for a few more years. However, an undercover officer eventually uncovered her activities.

On January 14, 1981, police raided her home and found a considerable collection of weed. The raid discovered 18 pounds of marijuana, around 650 brownies, and a variety of other illegal drugs. Perhaps because of her clean record, Mary Jane received a lenient sentence of three years’ probation and 500 hours of community service. At this point, the media began calling her ‘Brownie Mary.’

As was her way, Mary Jane found an opportunity from this particular crisis. She ultimately completed some of the hours with the Shanti Project, a support group for individuals with HIV/AIDS. Remarkably, she completed all 500 hours in approximately 60 days! Though her sentence had ended, she continued to help with the St. Martin de Pores soup kitchen, where she began her community service for another year.

By now, Mary Jane was a fixture in the San Francisco community. In the early 1980s, thousands of young men were dying from an illness no one could understand. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. At San Francisco General hospital, people with AIDS overcrowded the ward and were ignored en-masse, as the terrified staff was wary of catching the disease.

Mary Jane Rathbun was different. She threw herself headlong into helping these stricken individuals, brownies in tow. She viewed the patients in the hospital as her ‘kids,’ and even the police failed to halt her quest.

The Unstoppable Caring Machine

The vast majority of her customers were gay men. She quickly noticed that marijuana helped slow down the damage caused by wasting syndrome in those with AIDS. It was the same situation in cancer patients. While the San Francisco community helped by donating cannabis, Mary Jane used her monthly Social Security check to buy baking supplies.

In December 1982, she encountered one of the officers that arrested her the previous year. Unfortunately, she was carrying a bag filled with cannabis brownies for a friend with cancer. The cop discovered the 48 brownies and arrested Mary Jane for violation of probation and several counts of possession. Thankfully for the community, the district attorney decided there were more important things to worry about than a 59-year old woman with hash brownies, and dropped the charges.

From 1984, Mary Jane volunteered weekly at the San Francisco General Hospital in the AIDS ward. Her remarkable work led to the award of ‘Volunteer of the Year’ in 1986. By now, she had gained a level of fame. Aside from her efforts, Rathbun was also known for providing memorable quotes such as:

“If the narcs think I’m gonna stop baking brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go f**k themselves in Macy’s window.”

The illegal status of cannabis ensured that she was always under threat of arrest and imprisonment. Yet this prospect never bothered Mary Jane Rathbun. She was involved in the creation of Proposition P, a piece of legislation designed to recommend to the state of California that weed become legal for medicinal purposes. It also aimed to protect doctors that prescribed the substance.

A Good Year

It was inevitable that Rathbun would fall foul of the law, and her third arrest occurred in July 1992. On this occasion, law enforcement caught her pouring weed into brownie batter at a cannabis grower’s home. This incident drew international attention, and once again, she escaped prison. She was acquitted of two counts of felony marijuana possession.

It was a busy year for Brownie Mary. In August, she testified about MMJ at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting. The Board decided to make the arrest and prosecution of people growing, or in possession of, MMJ, the lowest priority. As a ‘reward,’ the Board declared August 25 was now ‘Brownie Mary Day.’

In September, she took part in protests against George H. W. Bush’s anti-cannabis policies. Rathbun also found time to help Peron open the San Francisco Buyer’s Club, America’s first MMJ dispensary. In 1993, the duo wrote a cookbook, though her special recipe remains a secret to this day!

A Landmark Achievement & The End

The goal was clear and beginning to feel ‘real.’ Momentum for medical marijuana in California was growing. By 1996, there was a belief that the Golden State would finally acquiesce. In that year, Rathbun and Peron, among others, campaigned fiercely on behalf of Proposition 215.

It was a statewide voter initiative that aimed to legalize MMJ for possession and cultivation. Their efforts were rewarded on November 5, 1996, when 55.6% of voters said ‘yes’ to Prop 215. For the first time in any American state, it was legal to grow and use cannabis if you had a specific medical condition. Prop 215 was the starting point of a journey towards full legalization that is still ongoing.

By now, her health was starting to fail. Nonetheless, she continued to fight on, though she considered giving up. Peron claimed she contemplated contacting Doctor Jack Kevorkian in 1996. He had a reputation for helping people commit suicide. Mary Jane had survived colon cancer and consumed half a brownie twice a day to help ease the pain caused by osteoarthritis in the knee.

In 1997, Mary Jane received the honor of being the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade Grand Marshal. She shared the honor with Dennis Peron. The end was near in August 1998 when she fell and required surgery on her spine and neck. A heart attack ended the life of Mary Jane Rathbun on April 10, 1999.

A week later, around 300 people attended a candlelit vigil in her honor. Her friend, Terence Hallinan, the district attorney, was among their number. He said she would “one day be remembered as the Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.”

Final Thoughts on Brownie Mary

It is likely only those with detailed knowledge of cannabis’ history in America have heard of Mary Jane Rathbun. That said, she became a prominent and much-loved figure amongst AIDS patients and the MMJ community in San Francisco. Though she looked like a friendly grandmother, Rathbun pulled no punches and did things her way.

In public, it was normal to see her clad in polyester pantsuits. By all accounts, she swore like a sailor and considered herself an atheist and anarchist. Unlike so many who talked the talk, Mary Jane went ‘all-in,’ for MMJ. Just as she did for every other cause she encountered in life. Whether the death of her daughter caused her entry into the cannabis scene is a mystery. We know she wore the cannabis pin during every court appearance in a clear show of defiance.

There is little doubt that Mary Jane Rathbun had a significant impact on the history of medical marijuana in the United States. Along with the likes of Dennis Peron and Jack Herer, she brought the cause to public attention. It is appropriate that she just about lived to see the legalization of the herb in California. It was, after all, Brownie Mary’s battleground.