Mary Jane Rathbun, better known as “Brownie Mary” was a hospital volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital. She was most well known for baking illegal cannabis brownies for AIDS patients. In 1992 she was arrested and charged with distribution in Sonoma County, California, and was represented by famous trial attorney J. Tony Serra.
In the 1970s, Mary worked as a waitress at the International House of Pancakes, she earned extra money selling cannabis laced brownies. She became known, in the Castro District, for selling “magical brownies” out of a basket for several dollars each. She sold her brownies at marijuana activist, Dennis Peron’s, Big Top Supermarket on Castro Street.
By the 1980s Mary was baking about 50 dozen cannabis brownies a day, she advertised on San Francisco bulletin boards, calling them “magically delicious”. Police eventually caught on to what she was doing and on the night of January 14, 1981, they raided her home, she was 57 years old at the time. Police found more than eighteen pounds of marijuana, fifty-four dozen brownies, and an assortment of other drugs. When she opened the door she reportedly told police, “I thought you guys were coming.” She pled guilty to nine counts of possession and received three years probation, and 500 hours of community service. It was her sentence of community service that changed her life and led to her activism.
Rathbun began working with the Shanti Project, a support group for people with HIV/AIDS. Mary began to notice that when she gave the patients her “magical” brownies it would bring them relief. She noticed the same was true of cancer patients. Her heart went out to those that were suffering and dying, and she began baking brownies to give them away to the patients. people started to donate marijuana to her and she would use her monthly $650 Social Security check to purchase baking supplies.
On December 7, 1982, she happened to be walking down Market Street carrying a bag of her brownies, and by chance ran into the same officers who had arrested her the year before. She was on her way to deliver brownies to a friend that had cancer and was suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy. She was arrested and charged with multiple counts of possession and violation of her probation. This time the District Attorney dropped the charges.
Beginning in 1984, Rathbun volunteered weekly in the AIDS ward (Ward 86) at San Francisco General Hospital. The patients looked forward to her visits and she supplied them with cannabis brownies that seemed to ease the suffering they endured. In 1986 she was was awarded the “volunteer of the year” award by Ward 86.
Rathbun began to develop into an effective activist for the use of medicinal marijuana. She felt that she saw first hand the effect of marijuana on the patients she assisted, and began to travel and speak out about legalizing marijuana. Rathbun helped work on Proposition P, which made cannabis available for medical purposes in the City of San Francisco. The proposition passed with 79% support in 1991.
In 1992, Mary Rathbun was in Cazadero, Sonoma County, and was making her special brownies. Authorities were tipped off that she was there, and she was arrested and charged with 2.5 pounds of cannabis. The year was 1992 and the War on Drugs was at its height, a Presidential Election was just around the corner, and a little old lady in her seventies was willing to go to prison for her beliefs.
The following is an excerpt from the book, Lust for Justice:The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra, by Paulette Frankl:
Her pre-trial hearing was held in Santa Rosa, California, in October 1992. It was such a big event that when I asked Tony Serra for directions to the courthouse and the name of the judge, he replied, “Just follow the crowds.”
The second-floor hallway leading to the small courtroom in Santa Rosa was jammed with hippies, media, AIDS patients and other supporters, and of course, law-enforcement officers ready to use their weapons if necessary. It took some aggressive elbowing to advance myself to the front of this dense crowd, where I was shocked to see a wizened old woman in her seventies at the center of a circle of bailiffs.
Brownie Mary didn’t look threatening enough to stir up such a fuss. She was small of stature, frail, and clearly scared about her impending fate. She was dressed in pastel polyester slacks with a blouse and a black sweater vest pinned with numerous cause buttons: “Free Brownie Mary,” “Medical Marijuana,” and Weed not Bush.” (It was an election year.) These Brownie Mary buttons became the envy of everyone in the hallways. Intense trading went on to acquire them. I was amused to see one of the officers aggressively trading for a button. He assured me he only wanted it for a souvenir-not to wear of course!
Her small stick figure showed through her loose-fitting garments. Thick bifocals covered a third of her face, giving her eyes a magnified and warped appearance, distorting the rest of her features. This was a face that showed mileage; it was at once strong, frightened and stubborn. It reflected the determination of one who’s old and has nothing to lose.
Tony Serra, her lawyer, towered protectively over her. The court bailiffs, too, seemed especially massive next to Brownie Mary. They were like pistol-flanking rhinos posturing their might before an aged sparrow, cornered in court, whose only crime was compassion, and producing loaded brownies to alleviate the suffering of AIDS victims. It all seemed so grotesque, so disproportionate, such a waste of time, money, and life’s precious resources in the name of the drug war and the law.
The whole spectacle overwhelmed the judge that he offered Brownie Mary a judicial slap on the wrist and a fine of $10,000 to call it quits. But here Brownie Mary showed her mettle. She thanked the judge kindly, but refused to be bought off. She insisted on a full-blown jury trial. The judge paled at the imagined specter of his courtroom filled with AIDS and chemotherapy victims in the later stages of their diseases, testifying to the medical benefits of marijuana, the ensuing headlines and media attention, and all the accompanying implications that would arise.
It was later announced that the case had been dismissed. But it laid the cornerstone for the legalization of medical marijuana that passed in the California elections of 1996.
Tony Serra was in his element representing Brownie Mary. He was especially striking at the hearing, thanks to his bright yellow tie with its vertical lineup of hand-painted green marijuana leaves. The marijuana tie was as eye-catching as a blinking exclamation point; it could not be ignored. The legalization of marijuana is one of Serra’s pet causes and he was a walking advertisement.
“Brownie Mary was providing marijuana brownies to terminally ill AIDS patients in San Francisco General Hospital, so it was an act of mercy,” Tony Serra recalls. “Only her humanitarian conscience guided her. She never made a penny on it and she exposed herself to the full fury of the law. She couldn’t have lasted long in the state penitentiary. So she was very brave.”
“In Brownie Mary’s defense, we argued the doctrine of necessity. We brought out the arsenal for the medical usage of marijuana: motions relating to constitutional rights; psychiatrists and doctors and marijuana activists all submitting affidavits. We marched to court. The radio and television stations all covered it. The court and the halls were filled with everyone from flower children to medical specialists. We so overwhelmed the judiciary that the case was dismissed after the preliminary hearing. It was a milestone experience that led the way to the de facto legalization of medical-marijuana usage by people who are afflicted with AIDS. Brownie Mary is a heroine in the eyes of many; she won herself a place in history. It was just good karma to be involved in that case.”
On April 10, 1999 at the age of 77 Mary Jane “Brownie Mary” Rathbun died of a heart attack. On April 17, a crowd of about 300 people, including her friend, district attorney Terrence Hallinan, attended a candle light vigil in her honor in the Castro District. Hallinan told the crown that Mary was a hero that will “one day be remembered as the Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.”

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