Mary Jane Rathbun



Mary Jane Rathbun (December 22, 1922 – April 10, 1999), popularly known as Brownie Mary, was an American medical cannabis activist. Rathbun was a hospital volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital who became known for illegally baking and distributing chocolate cannabis brownies to AIDS patients. Along with Dennis Peron, Rathbun was active in efforts to legalize cannabis for medical use, and she helped pass San Francisco Proposition P (1991) and California Proposition 215 (1996) to achieve those goals. Rathbun also contributed to the establishment of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States.

Rathbun was arrested on three separate occasions, with each arrest bringing increased local, national and international media attention to the medical cannabis movement. Her grandmotherly appearance generated public sympathy for her cause and worked against attempts by the district attorney's office to prosecute her for possession. The City of San Francisco eventually gave Rathbun permission to distribute cannabis brownies to people with AIDS. Her arrests generated interest in the medical community and motivated researchers to propose one of the first clinical trials to study the effects of cannabinoids in HIV-infected adults.
Beginning in 1984, Brownie Mary volunteered each Thursday in the AIDS ward (Ward 86) at San Francisco General Hospital. According to Donald Abrams, "she used to wheel our patients to radiology [and] take their specimens to the lab". Ward 86 honored her with a "Volunteer of The Year" award in 1986. Rathbun helped work on Proposition P, which was passed by 79 percent of San Francisco voters on November 5, 1991. Proposition P 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. In August 1992, Rathbun testified about medical cannabis in a hearing held by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The Board passed a resolution making the arrest or prosecution of people in possession of or growing medical cannabis the "lowest priority". The Board also recognized Rathbun's volunteer work at the hospital by declaring August 25 "Brownie Mary Day". In September 1992, Rathbun joined ACT UP/DC in Washington, D.C. for a protest against the medical cannabis policies of the U.S. government.

In 1992, Rathbun helped Dennis Peron open the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States. In 1996, Rathbun campaigned with Peron on behalf of California Proposition 215, a state-wide voter initiative that would allow patients to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal medical use with the recommendation of a physician. The initiative passed with more than 55 percent of the vote and became state law; 16 more states have since passed similar legislation. Rathbun was arrested for possession of cannabis three times, twice while she was baking brownies in 1981 and 1992, and once while she was delivering them to a sick customer in 1982. Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and CNN distributed stories about her arrests around the world, and brought her campaign to a wide audience, turning her grandmotherly visage into the public face of the American medical cannabis movement in the early 1990s and winning the movement a great deal of support and sympathy. Her publicized arrests contributed to the momentum behind public support for Proposition P and California Proposition 215.

Rathbun had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and osteoarthritis for some time before her death. She died of a heart attack at age 77 on April 10, 1999.