Meet Brownie Mary.
Mary Jane Rathbun, on first glance, was just your average grandma. With the requisite greying hair, thick spectacles, and a comfy cardigan vest, she certainly looked the part. But upon closer inspection, you might also notice a clenched fist in one hand, a plate of brownies in another, and ironed onto her vest, a single marijuana leaf patch, one of her signature accessories.
She went by the name "Brownie Mary."
Born to a strict Catholic family and raised in the Midwest, Rathbun didn't seem to care much for convention from the very beginning.
"She went to Catholic school and quickly talked back to a nun and dropped out and went off to become a waitress for the rest of her life," said Brit Smith on a recent episode of her podcast, Blunt Talk. (According to a New York Times article, Rathbun actually claimed she "struck back at a nun who had caned her and got in a few good licks herself.")
During her teens, she traveled from Chicago to Wisconsin to champion union rights for miners. At the beginning of World War II, Rathbun found her way to San Fransisco, where she married, had one daughter, and divorced soon thereafter. Her daughter Jenny died in a car accident at the age of 22, according to a 1999 SF Gate obituary.
This tragedy, coupled with Rathbun's spirit for advocacy—and rule-breaking—would ultimately set the stage for her life's work: medical marijuana.
"Everybody assumed that the way Mary grew from then on as a person was because she had had that huge loss in her life as a mother," Smith explained, "and that she really wanted to work towards charity in her life and to giving back and to loving people."
But her famous pot brownies actually started out as a side hustle.
It's worth mentioning here that Rathbun isn't credited with popularizing pot brownies (and it's impossible to know who "invented" them). It's widely agreed that this honor belongs to Alice B. Toklas, who not only palled around with famous early 20th-century artists and writers like Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway, but was also poet Gertrude Stein's life partner. In 1954, Toklas published her eponymous cookbook, which contained a recipe for "Haschich Fudge."
Oddly enough, the recipe contained no chocolate at all—instead it called for dates, nuts, figs, sugar, a spice blend, and of course cannabis sativa. Still, "it became Toklas's signature accomplishment, sparking great controversy and inspiring a flurry of cultural references over the next few decades," Hilary Pollack wrote in a 2014 Munchies article on the "Old Ladies" of weed history.
"In 1974," Pollack says, "two decades after the publishing of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, a 54-year-old IHOP waitress named Mary Jane (har, har, har) Rathbun became well-known in San Francisco for selling mystical weed-laced brownies out of her house—and at times, brazenly out of a basket at a nearby supermarket."
By the late 1970s, the demand was so high that Rathbun was selling hundreds of her self-proclaimed "magically delicious" brownies in the Castro, a predominantly gay neighborhood in San Francisco where she lived in a housing project for the elderly. In 1981, the first case of AIDS (which was initially described as "Gay Men's Pneumonia," and then "GRID," or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) was reported. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.
As the popularity of her brownies—and the panic surrounding the epidemic—grew, Rathbun started to draw attention from the police. In the early '80s Rathbun was arrested for the first time (she would go on to be arrested twice more, though both attempts to prosecute her would fail). During one raid on her home in 1981, the police confiscated over 18 pounds of marijuana, all of which was donated by growers. According to SF Weekly, legend has it that she told the cops upon their arrival, "I thought you guys were coming."
Rathbun was ordered to serve hundreds of hours of community service as a result of her first arrest, which she chose to spend with AIDS patients—and which she probably would have done anyway, court order or not. Her legal run-ins also captured the attention of national headlines, which earned Rathbun her famous nickname: Brownie Mary.
Despite the arrests, Brownie Mary used her social security checks and donations to continue baking, especially once she noticed that the pot brownies helped curb the nausea and appetite loss suffered by AIDS and cancer patients, whom she affectionately called her "kids."
"I make them for the worst of the patients, the ones on chemotherapy and the ones totally wasting away," she told the LA Times after an arrest in 1992. On the same day she appeared in a Santa Rosa municipal court to face those felony charges, wearing her signature marijuana patches and pins, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared August 25 as "Brownie Mary Day" to honor her work.
But Brownie Mary didn't stop at just, well, brownies. In 1991, she successfully campaigned for the passage of Proposition P in San Francisco, which recommended that the state of California restore marijuana to the list of available medications.
The next year, she helped her friend and fellow LGBT and medical marijuana advocate, Dennis Peron, open the nation's first medical dispensary: the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club. "Initially intended for AIDS and cancer patients," Peron's New York Times obituary read, "it soon accepted a broader universe of the seriously ill."
Even while Brownie Mary's own health began to decline—her arthritis gave her chronic pain, and she had two artificial knees she could only use with help from her "own sweet medicine"—she successfully fought for the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Proposition 215) in California. This law gave critical patients in California, including those with cancer, AIDS, arthritis, and chronic pain, the right "to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician."
That same year, she co-authored a cookbook with Peron: Brownie Mary's Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron's Recipe for Social Change.
The only thing missing? Her brownie recipe.
"When and if they legalize it, I'll sell my brownie recipe to Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines," she told The New York Times, "and take the profits and buy an old Victorian for my kids with AIDS."
Mary Jane Rathbun died in 1999, just over 20 years ago to the day. Ten states (plus Washington D.C.) have since fully legalized recreational marijuana, while 33 have legalized it for medical purposes. Though she would never get to celebrate these wins—or share her now-lost brownie recipe with the world—it’s impossible not to recognize her relentless activism and compassion as a driving, progressive force in the LGBTQ community, San Francisco, and beyond.
"Brownie Mary was a hero for our time, in a world with few heroes," said her friend and lawyer, Larry Bittner.
"I didn't go into this thinking I would be a hero," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. "It was something I wanted to do to help my gay friends, and it just spiraled."