Meet Brownie Mary, the woman arrested for giving cannabis brownies to AIDS patients

Brownie Mary’s collection resides at the San Francisco Main Library, complete with pictures and pins, as well as a recipe for THC spaghetti.

Screenshot from a television interview with Mary Jane Rathbun, aka ‘Brownie Mary’.
Image: Via YouTube: Ruby Dunes Video

‘Brownie Mary’, the grandmotherly figure in the image overhead, was known for her skilful baking, earning her the notorious nickname. Except this woman wasn’t baking for her own grandkids, but rather a community that she had adopted and was committed to caring for. Another exception, her special recipe wasn’t one for an indulgent Victoria Sponge, but instead for brownies infused with cannabis. 

Self-proclaimed inventor of the weed brownie, she was famous for bringing her creations to gay men and others suffering from wasting syndrome, a medical complication that was seen during the AIDS crisis. Her famed desserts were used to ease suffering from the condition, which caused detrimental effects on patients’ appetites, as well as high-speed metabolic weight loss. 

Pictured above in her cat-eye glasses and iridescently coloured blazer, Mary Jane Rathbun was born in Chicago in 1922. She is described as “the Florence Nightingale of HIV/AIDS”, with her activism before and during the crisis making her a pioneer for California’s cannabis legalisation. 

The prolific distribution of these magic treats started while Brownie Mary was working as a waitress in her early 50s. She was working at an IHOP restaurant in the Castro, one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the United States, and at one point in the 25 years she worked there, she started a side hustle of selling cannabis-infused brownies.

She began bringing the brownies to patients in Ward 86 of the UCSF hospital, eventually referring to them as her kids. She’d bring high-grade cannabis treats to the patients to help relieve their suffering. Eventually being dubbed ‘Brownie Mary’ by the people she helped, she also garnered national media attention after she was arrested three times for what she was doing at the hospital. 

A month after her third arrest in 1992 at a rally in San Francisco, Rathbun reportedly cried out: “If the narcs think I’m gonna stop baking brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go f*** themselves in Macy’s window”. She continued her production, baking nearly 600 brownies a day at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.


Brownie Mary continued to advocate for compassionate care for those suffering from the disease, citing research and recording the positive effects that cannabis had on patients. Prop 215 passed in 1996, allowing Cannabis to be grown and sold in California as well as be recommended to patients by doctors. Two years after that, four other states in the country passed their own medical marijuana laws. Today, medical cannabis is legal in 37 states across the US.

Following Prop 215, Mary passed away from a heart attack after struggling with various illnesses. She died in 1999, with an unprecedented turn of events occurring at her vigil. In the wake of her death, long-term friend and San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan announced an end to further prosecutions against medical cannabis users. 

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