Recipe for Revolution: “Brownie Mary” and the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic, 1980s-1990s

Misha Laurence ’18 is an anthropology major (with a linguistics concentration). His work focuses on medical cannabis, particularly in connection with medical anthropology, science studies, and the study of health movements and activism. For his senior thesis in anthropology, he conducted an ethnographic study of medical cannabis in Washington State. In addition, he enjoys birdwatching, reading about religion, and playing tabletop RPGs.

A painting of Mary Jane Rathbun with a plate of brownies
“Brownies Anyone” by Thomas Hawk (Flickr)

Ask an American today what a real medical cannabis patient looks like, and you are increasingly likely to hear an answer referring to young children like Charlotte Figi. The product of a long and laborious campaign by medical cannabis activists, the modern archetypal patient is as innocent and sympathetic as possible, a tool (successfully used by many other public health campaigns) against the stigma cannabis users faced and continue to face today [1] [2] [3]. As the War on Drugs escalated, activists – largely without the support of medical or legal authorities – painstakingly won over Americans state by state, legalizing medical cannabis through what one observer later disapprovingly titled “medicine by popular vote” [4]. However, bringing medical cannabis into the spotlight of mainstream acceptance has obscured the existence and importance of other, less “photogenic” medical cannabis patients of the past, as well as those who cared for them. Furthermore, the history of cannabis, and of “illicit” drugs in general, is dominated by the profiles of scientists (like William Brooke O’Shaughnessy or Raphael Mechoulam) or prohibitionists (like Harry J. Anslinger and Richard Nixon). Since cannabis legalization movements (from what I know from my own research) place high value on oral histories, have an overrepresentation of people prone to shortened lifespans due to illness, and have historically focused on the state rather than the federal level, historians risk overlooking the numerous activists involved in many local movements nationwide.

Of these figures, Californian activist Mary Jane Rathbun (1922-1999) is probably one of the most widely known. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the San Francisco General Hospital volunteer distributed cannabis brownies to patients in the AIDS ward as well as the wider community – an illegal act that earned her national attention for her multiple arrests and court appearances, as well as her popular nickname, Brownie Mary. Unfortunately, no scholarly treatment devoted to her life or activism currently exists. A low-income and disabled woman of little education, Rathbun’s impact on American attitudes toward medical cannabis, generated through publicity garnered by her arrests, was nonetheless remarkable. Her associations with San Francisco’s queer community, as well as her careful management of her own “grandmotherly” public image, propelled both AIDS patients and medical cannabis patients into public awareness. With modern cannabis discourse flooded by more sanitized images, it is no wonder that the links between the contemporary queer movements (i.e., ACT UP) and the medical cannabis movement, though appreciated by some activists, have been neglected in many scholarly retellings of cannabis history. Even after the Nixon administration restricted medical cannabis research by classifying it as a Schedule I drug, Rathbun’s direct action inspired scientists to conduct research on medical cannabis and AIDS [5], government officials to pay more attention to AIDS patients, and the people of California to question the wisdom of prohibition and institute the nation’s first modern medical cannabis law.

Born in the 1920s to an Irish Catholic mother (who had no idea what “Mary Jane” would come to mean), Rathbun grew up in Minnesota in an era before cannabis was made illegal. She left home at 13 when she struck back at a Catholic school nun who was beating her; she remained an avowed atheist for the rest of her life [6]. Nonetheless, she credited her upbringing with teaching her the importance of volunteerism and community involvement. During her teens, she traveled throughout the Midwest, supporting activist causes such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion access, and the union rights of miners [7]. During World War II, she moved to San Francisco with some friends “to chase men,” and eventually settled down in the historically queer Castro District, where she waitressed for the next 40 years. Her two marriages ended in divorce and her only child, Peggy (1955-1974), died in a car accident. Later that year, she met queer activist and cannabis businessman Dennis Peron, who would become a lifelong ally. Some observers and people close to her attributed her relationships with San Francisco’s queer community to her seeking emotional support (or, as is often implied, “surrogate children”) to cope with her grief [8]. At some point, she also began supplementing her income, savings, and (later) Social Security checks by baking and selling cannabis brownies, making her a fixture of the Castro District. (However, Rathbun did not invent cannabis brownies, and it is unknown where she got the idea for her undisclosed recipe; however, it was probably popularized for non-medical use in a 1954 cookbook published by Alice B. Toklas, the life partner of Gertrude Stein [9] [10].)

AIDS patients in the 1980s had to grapple with the multiple stigmas of being labeled HIV-positive, drug-addicted, and queer. Rathbun saw her friends and customers – many of them queer men – sicken and die; in one 1992 interview, she estimated that she had lost “hundreds and hundreds” of friends to AIDS. When she was first arrested in 1981 (apparently due to a disgruntled customer-turned-informant) she admitted that she was only in the cannabis industry for the money, and (as prosecutors would point out in her later 1992 arrest) would continue to profit off her brownies for years to come [11]. The prosecutor punished her relatively leniently after she pleaded guilty; she quickly found a way to work off the 500 hours of community service by volunteering in Ward 86 of the San Francisco General Hospital, the “gay ward” where AIDS patients stayed [12]. During her time on the ward, she met and befriended Dr. Donald Abrams, then an AIDS clinician at the hospital. As a gay man, he was initially skeptical of the concept of an AIDS ward, but would eventually become prominent in AIDS and medical cannabis research [13]. Over the following years, she devoted more and more of her time and resources to AIDS patients, who she affectionately referred to as “her kids.” Since she was living mainly on Social Security checks and was unable to serve brownies in the hospital itself, she received anonymous donations from growers and volunteered for the Shanti Project (a support group for people with life-threatening diseases) as a cover to distribute her products to patients’ homes [14] [15] [16]. Despite baking as many as 1,500 brownies a month, the demand for them grew so large that at times she had to pull names from a cookie jar to see who would receive them next [17] [18].

Rathbun continued to distribute brownies largely uninterrupted (with the exception of a 1984 arrest where charges were dropped) until 1992. Earlier that year, she and Peron had campaigned successfully for Proposition P, which allowed physicians to prescribe medical cannabis in San Francisco and passed with 80% of the vote [19]. That same year, they opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. As the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States, it was modeled closely after the buyers’ clubs of the AIDS activists and patients with whom Rathbun had worked so closely [20]. A 1996 article estimated that the club boasted 11,000 members [21]. It would continue to operate until 1998, when it was closed for operating illegally [22].

But while baking brownies at a friend’s home in Sonoma, CA, she was arrested and charged by Gene Tunney, the Sonoma County DA who promised to treat her “like any other marijuana dealer” – sentenced to 5 years in prison [23]. But this time, she refused to plead guilty, and defiantly chose to wear a cannabis leaf pin to hearings even when threatened with contempt of court [24]. (According to Rathbun, the pin was a gift from her deceased daughter Peggy from when she was a teenager [25]). By this point, the population of San Francisco overwhelmingly supported her efforts; when Rathbun walked into a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors later that year, she was given a standing ovation, had a day declared in her honor (August 25, 1992), and was essentially given de facto permission to distribute her goods within San Francisco. The perceived outrageousness of arresting a “grandma” baking brownies for “sick kids” brought her national and international attention. Her fame and the ensuing coverage was enough that prosecutors realized pressing charges against her would be bad for their image, and all the charges against her were dropped later that year [26] [27].

Rathbun, as an older, white, and apparently straight woman, had social capital and influence that likely played a substantial role in her positive reception and subsequent acquittals. However, she also appeared to be rather self-aware of her image, even if she did not address intersections of race, gender, and other factors openly. She continued to refer to the AIDS patients she helped as her “kids,” clearly playing along with the grandmotherly features the media saw in her, and she also leveraged the attention she received to draw attention to both medical cannabis and AIDS patients. On The Maury Povich Show and other news outlets, she named friends who had died of AIDS and condemned the government’s inaction on the AIDS crisis and medical cannabis [28]. With Peron, she also attempted to advocate medical cannabis to leaders of ACT UP and its breakaway organizations [29]. These activists, who were already involved in buyers’ clubs specializing in other experimental AIDS treatments, tended to prefer Marinol but were open to considering medical cannabis [30].

Abrams, who by now was at University of California San Francisco, had just arrived in Amsterdam for an international conference on AIDS when he saw international news coverage of Rathbun’s most recent arrest. Inspired by her anecdotal evidence, and supported by AIDS activists like Dennis Peron and drug researcher Rick Doblin, Abrams proposed a new experiment [31] [32]. Because AIDS activists were curious about medical cannabis’ anti-emetic properties, yet wary of its potential interactions with other medications, Abrams designed a study focusing on the effects of medical cannabis in AIDS patients. Abrams’ proposed research was unique for its time: it was the first large-scale clinical trial investigating the therapeutic effect of cannabis, rather than just observing its effects on the body [33]. However, it was repeatedly blocked by the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA), on the grounds that a positive result would make the drug too attractive to teenagers [34]. After years of stonewalling, their study was approved in 1997 and published in 2003, 4 years after Rathbun’s death. Abrams and his colleagues found that medical cannabis, while it did not cure AIDS, was not inherently unsafe either, and could thus be a potential medicine for further investigation. He frequently cited Rathbun as his project’s inspiration [35].

Locally, Rathbun, Peron, and other activists began campaigning for medical cannabis law reform throughout California in 1992. Thanks to their efforts, California passed the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (or Proposition 215), making it first state in the US to legalize or decriminalize medical cannabis [36]. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington followed two years later, and the pace has quickened ever since. Today, 29 states permit, to differing extents, some kind of medical cannabis product.

Observers retelling Rathbun’s life face two, seemingly opposing temptations: the inclination to clone her carefully cultivated image of grandmotherly innocence, and the urge to resurrect her as an irreverent rebel whose anarchistic politics appeared rather radical for her time [37] [38]. Rathbun herself seemed conflicted at times about her portrayal in the media. “I’m really not so tough,” she remarked in a 1992 interview. “I’ve spent years creating this image of a tough old lady, but I blow it when I get emotional about my kids” [39]. But like many activists, including those whose names and deeds have been lost to obscurity, Rathbun’s greatest impacts lie not in whatever individual fame she did or did not achieve, but in her devotion to her local community, subtly shifting the rest of the nation with it. Rathbun’s life through the eyes of the historian is not necessarily the same as her life the way she would have wanted it remembered. “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” [40].


Cannabis’ relationship with American medicine has undergone massive cultural shifts, even within the last century. An essential ingredient on the United States Pharmacopoeia in one era, illicit and useless weed in another, today cannabis’ place in politics and media is squarely, if controversially, in the mainstream. Proponents for further legalization often point to its rapidly burgeoning industry in states where it is already permitted, not to mention its endorsements by such prominent figures as neurosurgeon-journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In April 2018, the Food and Drug Administration even recommended approval of GW Pharmaceuticals’ cannabis-derived medication Epidiolex for the treatment of epilepsy. For many medical cannabis supporters, this increasing acceptance heralds a medical renaissance.

During my fieldwork in researching medical cannabis advocacy in Washington State, a man exhorted his audience to “know your cannabis history.” As the profits of cannabis business start lining the pockets of those with the sufficient privileges to financially benefit from its legalization, accurate histories must be written of the patients and caregivers who lived and died so that Americans today can exhale, even slightly, a sigh of relief.


[1] Theodore M. Brown and Elizabeth Fee, “Social movements in health,” Annual Review of Public Health 35 (2013): 385-398.

[2] Misha Laurence, “Marijuana, Mothers, Morals, and the Military: Rhetorical Motifs and Epistemic Authority in Pro-Medical Cannabis Testimonies” (presentation, Central States Anthropological Society Annual Meeting, Lincoln, NE, Apr. 6-8, 2017).

[3] Jean L. Bottorff, Laura J. L. Bissell, Lynda G. Balneaves, John L. Oliffe, N. Rielle Capler, and Jane Buxton. “Perceptions of cannabis as a stigmatized medicine: a qualitative descriptive study,” Harm Reduction Journal 10, no. 2 (Feb. 2013).

[4] Eric A. Voth, “Guidelines for prescribing medical marijuana,” Western Journal of Medicine 175, no. 5 (2001): 305-306.

[5] Sabin Russell, “Pioneering S. F. AIDS ward celebrates its first 20 years,” SF Gate, July 26, 2003.

[6] Carey Goldberg, “Brownie Mary Fights to Legalize Marijuana,” New York Times, July 6, 1996.

[7] “Mary Jane Rathbun,” The Economist, April 22, 1999.

[8] Goldberg.

[9] “Mary.”

[10] Christopher Reed, “’Brownie Mary’ Rathbun,” The Guardian, May 19, 1999.

[11] Bill Castanier, “Grass roots: Emily Dufton revists the marijuana movement,” Lansing City Pulse, January 4, 2018.

[12] Peter Gorman, “High Times Interview: Brownie Mary Rathbun,” High Times, January 1993.

[13] Russell.

[14] Elaine Woo, “’Brownie Mary’ Rathbun Dies; Advocated Medical Marijuana,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1999.

[15] Goldberg.

[16] Gorman.

[17] Goldberg.

[18] Andrew Gumbel, “Obituary: Brownie Mary,” The Independent, April 14, 1999.

[19] Reed.

[20] Larry D. Hatfield, “Mary Rathbun – Brownie Mary,” SF Gate, April 12, 1999.

[21] Goldberg.

[22] Mary Curtius, “Oakland Cannabis Club Closes After Appeal Is Denied,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1998.

[23] Gorman.

[24] Reed.

[25] Gorman.

[26] Gumbel.

[27] Goldberg.

[28] Gorman.

[29] Kris Hermes, “The Politics of Pot and Pain,” Americans For Safe Access, April 3, 2014.

[30] Hatfield.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Hermes.

[33] Gorman.

[34] Sally Lehrman, “U.S. drug agencies resist AIDS medicinal-pot plan,” SF Gate, January 8, 1995.

[35] Russell.

[36] Reed.

[37] Woo.

[38] “Mary.”

[39] Gorman.

[40] Goldberg.

Further Reading

Bostwick, J. M. “Blurred boundaries: the therapeutics and politics of medical marijuana.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 87, no. 2 (2012): 172-186.

Chapkis, Wendy and Richard J. Webb. Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2008.

Hudak, John. Marijuana: A Short History. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016.

Werner, Clinton A. “Medical Marijuana and the AIDS Crisis.” Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics 3/4 (2001): 17-33.