How Brownie Mary became a steadfast LGBTQ+ ally & cannabis pioneer

Sam Laird
Jun 12, 2019

She fought the law by fighting for HIV/AIDS patients.

Bold and feisty, utterly devoted to principles she held sacred, the elderly woman everyone knew simply as “Brownie Mary” cut a memorable figure everywhere she went.

“Magical brownies for sale, magically delicious!” Mary called as she hawked her baked goods from the corner of San Francisco’s 18th and Castro streets in the early 1980s.

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Later, she provided tender support while traversing the halls of San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward, delivering free marijuana-infused concoctions to sick patients during the epidemic’s brutal early days.

But Mary Jane Rathbun isn’t just a colorful character from history. She embodies the deep link between the LGBTQ+ rights movement and the medical cannabis movement. And there’s a direct line connecting her access advocacy – which gained her an arrest record as well as fame – to the widespread cannabis access from which millions of Americans benefit in 2019.

In the 1980s and 90s, though, Rathbun paid a legal price for her pioneering work providing cannabis access to gay men with AIDS in San Francisco. But arrests never stopped her for long — nor could they quell the grandmother-aged woman’s fiery personality.

“After one of her busts she said, ‘If the narcs think I’m going to stop baking pot brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go fuck themselves in the Macy’s store window,’” David Goldman recalls with a laugh.

[Brownie Mary and her wares. Photo illustration by Josh Dickey]

Her impact still ripples through time.

Goldman first met Rathbun in the early 1980s, when she sold her wares in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District. They became close as Mary’s role grew in the LGBTQ+ rights and medical marijuana movements over the following years.

Today, Goldman is president of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club of San Francisco, which works to influence cannabis policy within the California Democratic Party.

“She was revered,” Goldman says of Rathbun’s impact in the gay community during the first years of the AIDS epidemic. “She was helping people without any idea of financial compensation. She was one of our angels at the time.”

Michael Koehn, left, and David Goldman [photo courtesy of David Goldman]
Rathbun grew up in the Midwest before coming to San Francisco after World War II, according to obituaries following her death at age 77 in 1999. She was married for a short time, had a daughter who died young in a car accident and worked for decades as a waitress.

It was only later in life that she started selling cannabis-infused brownies in the Castro District, where she’d made many friends among the neighborhood’s large population of gay men.

When some of those friends were diagnosed with HIV and AIDS as the disease first became a public health crisis, much of what she baked she gave away for free. Gay AIDS patients, whose bodies were doubly ravaged by the strong pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by doctors, were among the first to hail marijuana’s medical potential.

“I was using cannabis at that time because I would throw up in the morning and not be able to keep food down,” says Michael Koehn, Goldman’s partner, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985. “Taking cannabis allowed me to keep my breakfast down and go to work.”

A local San Francisco icon.

The story of an elderly lady distributing an illegal substance to help her terminally ill friends was simply too intriguing to ignore. She was especially known for visiting San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward to hand out brownies as she traveled from room to room, visiting the patients she called her “kids.”

Following her third arrest in 1992, Rathbun summarized her stance in an interview with The San Francisco Examiner.

“My kids need this, and I’m ready to go to jail for my principles,” she told the paper. “I’m not going to cut any deals … If I go to jail, I go to jail.”

Rathbun never went behind bars, but she did use her growing reputation to help push the concept of medical cannabis access into the mainstream. As Proposition 215 worked its way toward the California ballot in 1996, Rathbun gave interviews to outlets including The New York Times extolling the virtues of medical marijuana.

“She was a perfect spokesperson for how cannabis could help people who were ill,” says Goldman.

[Photo courtesy of David Goldman]

A legacy that will outlive us all.

Voters passed 215 in November 1996, making California the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use. That provided a foundation for several states to follow suit in the ensuing years. Today, 33 states have medical cannabis, while 10 more have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

By the time Rathbun died in 1999, however, she’d already crossed over into the mainstream by gaining fans within the law enforcement world, as well as in the cannabis and LGBTQ+ communities.

“Brownie Mary was a hero,” San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan said at a candlelight vigil the week after her death. “She will one day be remembered as the Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.”

Twenty years later, Rathbun’s legacy looms large as ever — both as an unfaltering LGBTQ+ ally and a pioneer of cannabis access.

Next time you partake in the benefits of cannabis – whether for medical relief or recreational relaxation – consider sparing a moment of gratitude for the septuagenarian legend they called “Brownie Mary.”

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