Aptly born as Mary Jane Rathbun, Brownie Mary, as she would famously be called, was a major figure in the fight for the legalization of medical cannabis. In 1996, the New York Times compared Rathbun to the domestic goddesses of American pop culture: Betty Crocker, Mrs. Field, Sara Lee to name just a few. But Rathbun’s secret ingredient was weed. When Brownie Mary saw how cannabis helped AIDS patients, she began baking THC laced brownies in the hundreds and distributing them to sick people free of charge. Rathbun’s monthly $650 Social Security check helped her to purchase baking supplies, while others donated money or weed to support her baking skills. What started out as a way to make a living, evolved slowly into a cause.
After first being arrested at the age of 57 in the early 80s, she received three years probation and was also sentenced her to 500 hours of community service. According to fellow friend and cannabis activist, Dennis Peron:
“Those first 500 hours she worked at a variety of places, from the gay thrift store to the Shanti project (a support group for people with HIV/AIDS), doing her community service in record time—60 days. Although no longer obligated to do community service, she continued her work for St. Martinde Pores soup kitchen until 1982, when she joined the Shanti project, which was responding to the demands of the emerging AIDS crisis.”
In New York in the early 1990s, Peron spoke at a meeting of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP) about the possible use of cannabis for the relief of AIDS symptoms. Studies indicated that cannabis could help with nausea and the loss of appetite suffered by patients undergoing therapy for diseases like cancer and AIDS. However, because cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug, medicinal users of cannabis were subject to arrest.
Despite ACT UP’s initial skepticism reception at his initial meeting, Peron persisted. He told Rathbun about ACTUP, and she later spoke to the group about her first-hand experience distributing cannabis-laced brownies to people with AIDS.
Rathbun helped work on Proposition P, which made it the policy of the City of San Francisco to recommend that the State of California and the California Medical Association make cannabis available for medicinal purposes and to protect physicians from penalties for prescribing medicinal cannabis. It passed and paved the way for California Proposition 215, which was the first medical marijuana ballot initiative passed at the state level. Rathbun was also involved in the legislation. After fighting the good fight and helping to seed the beginning tendrils of legalization, Rathbun died of a heart attack at age 77 on April 10, 1999.
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