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Who Is Brownie Mary—and What Is Her Significance in Cannabis Culture?

Chane Leigh

by Chane Leigh

October 4, 2022 08:00 am ET Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
Who Is Brownie Mary—and What Is Her Significance in Cannabis Culture?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) have treatment options, but currently, there is no effective cure. Many individuals and organizations work hard to support HIV/AIDS patients. One woman demonstrated extraordinary dedication to supporting HIV/AIDS patients, as well as contributed to cannabis culture, baking nearly 600 edible brownies a day during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis. 

Who Was Brownie Mary?

Mary Jane Rathbun (December 22, 1922 – April 10, 1999), A.K.A. Brownie Mary, was an American medical cannabis activist and commonly associated with being an edibles pioneer. Brownie Mary’s friend and author, Clint Werner, described her as someone cut from the same cloth as “tough, traditional, blue-collar, working-class lefties” despite having been arrested multiple times on charges of cannabis possession. 

Brownie Mary started advocating for women’s rights to have abortions and miners’ rights to form unions before she moved to San Francisco from Minneapolis during World War II. Mary was a waitress in San Francisco and spent her free time volunteering at a hospital and joining activist campaigns. 

Brownie Mary’s Significance in Cannabis Culture

Madison Margolin described one of Brownie Mary’s activist events explaining that she “stood at the center of 5,000 people at a rally in front of San Francisco City Hall with her short, curly gray hair, her granny specs, and a sweater vest covered in pins.” Brownie Mary pumped her fists into the air and cried, “if the narcs think I’m gonna stop baking brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go fuck themselves in Macy’s window.” Werner described this moment by stating, “God, it was beautiful and so cool.” 

John Entwistle, the husband of Dennis Peron (Mary’s friend) and co-author of Proposition 215 —which eventually made California the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996 — explained that Brownie Mary was “above ground; [her cannabis] was for everyone.”

Despite her boldness, openly making cannabis brownies to support those in need, Mary was not above the law. As mentioned above, Brownie Mary had a couple of run-ins with the law, resulting in her decision to take her brownie business underground.

During one of these run-ins, Entwistle explains that the judge said she had to stop “the Brownie Mary shtick” or she would be sent to jail. During this encounter with the law, she was sentenced to community service, which is how she ended up volunteering at the Shanti Project — a nonprofit organization supporting those who were dealing with the AIDS crisis. 

600 Brownies a Day

Those with HIV/AIDS are especially prone to wasting syndrome the unintentional loss of more than 10% of body weight along with symptoms such as fever, weakness, and diarrhea, which lasts for a minimum of 30 days. By 1984, Brownie Mary was volunteering in the AIDS ward at the San Francisco General Hospital and baking nearly 600 brownies daily.

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These brownies were mainly given to those suffering from wasting syndrome as they increased their appetite, slowed their high-speed metabolic weight loss, and alleviated suffering (pain, anxiety, etc.).

According to Entwistle, Mary was one of the first people to become actively involved with AIDS since the disease was so controversial. Entwistle states, “She became one of the first people to put her hands on the epidemic, [having] instinctively figured out that cannabis would be a good thing for these guys.” 

“Let’s Get Busted”

Brownie Mary was never in it for the money, and the money she made from her brownies was mainly used to cover the cost of making them. Entwistle stated that Mary was “down to earth, very humble, but in a non-assuming way.”

Having lost her daughter, Mary adopted runaway children in San Francisco. She considered AIDS patients her children as well. She wanted to do more than make cannabis-infused brownies to help those who need them. 

Therefore, Brownie Mary, Person and Entwistle decided to open the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club as a ploy to get busted so they could set a precedent in court. Entwistle explained that they “set up Brownie Mary’s Cafe in the basement of Dennis’s house” and that they “went through the motions of physically selling pot to these people, we took money, put pot on a scale, weighed it out, and allowed media to film it with folks consuming it in the room. But [the police] wouldn’t bust us is what happened.” 

Brownie Mary Shows What Cannabis Culture Is All About

Even though their attempt at getting busted was a failure, Brownie Mary showed people what cannabis culture is all about — community and care for all. District attorney Terence Hallinan described Mary as “the Florence Nightingale of the medical cannabis movement.” 

Not only did she lobby for the legalization of cannabis, she also provided medicated brownies to offer relief to patients in desperate need of care. 

Mary was more than just an edible pioneer and activist. She held the hands of patients when they received their diagnosis and encouraged them to keep living. She gave her heart and soul to causes she believed in, even under the threat of imprisonment.

Post Your Comments

Richard Hagan says:

October 7, 2022 at 8:00 pm

About Brownie Mary. What a beautiful lady. God bless her, risking everything for other people. She lit the torch. I am sure her compassion and love will not be over looked.


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