Brownie Mary

Cannabis Helps AIDS Patients Without Serious Side Effects

Throughout the AIDS crisis, Mary Jane Rathburn volunteered  as a nurse’s assistant. While making the rounds in local hospital  wards, she would discreetly provide home-baked cannabis-infused  “magically delicious” brownies for free to those in need.

Eventually, “Brownie Mary’s” tireless public service  caught the eye of Dr. Donald Abrams, now the head of oncology at San  Francisco General Hospital. Inspired by her example, Abrams set out to  prove via science what he’d already seen with his own eyes. Namely, that  cannabis is a uniquely effective medicine for those suffering with  AIDS-related nausea.  In 1997, after a long and bitter battle with the federal government,  Abrams at last secured almost one million dollars from NIDA to conduct  clinical trials of the short-term safety of cannabinoids in HIV  infection. In time, he would publish a string of studies showing that  cannabis given to HIV patients “did not hurt the immune system, did not  increase viral load, did not negatively interact with the protease  inhibitors, and actually did facilitate increased caloric intake as well  as weight gain.” 

Cannabis infused Brownies

Mary Jane Rathbun aka Brownie Mary


It was the late 1980s. The AIDS crisis was devastating San Francisco.  Hospital beds in Ward 86 at San Francisco General Hospital were full,  and with an average life expectancy of only 18 months, thousands were  dying of the disease each year. Clad in polyester pants, Mary Jane  Rathbun would walk up and down the hallways, handing out  marijuana-filled brownies to alleviate patients’ suffering.

Rathbun, known by her moniker “Brownie Mary,” was one of the first  cannabis activists to emerge from the 1960s and ’70s. While working as a  waitress at IHOP, she developed a recipe for cannabis-laced brownies,  which she called “magically delicious,” and sold on the streets of the  Castro. Business was good, and by the late 1970s, she was baking several  dozen each day to meet demand.

Along with the high times that the brownies would give her customers,  Rathbun noticed a reduction in pain and nausea among those who were  chronically ill. This inspired her to begin making trips to local cancer  and AIDS wards. As she became more famous, growers began donating large  bags of weed toward her brownie supply fund — which, after retiring  from IHOP, had been funded solely with her $612-per-month Social  Security checks.

Her work eventually drew attention from the San Francisco Police  Department, who raided her public-housing apartment in 1981 to discover  more than 18 pounds of cannabis. Legend has it that upon opening the  door, Rathbun told the police, “I thought you guys were coming.” She was  57 years old when she was arrested for the first time, and the case  made national headlines.  

The 500 hours of community service she was required to perform as  part of her sentence came naturally to Rathbun, and she burned through  them in a record 60 days. She volunteered at a gay thrift store, for a  hospice program called the Shanti Project, and at the Martin de Porres  soup kitchen, all the while continuing her work at Ward 86. The hospital  honored her with a Volunteer of the Year award in 1986.


“I didn’t go into this thinking I would be a hero,”

Rathbun told the Chicago Tribune in a 1993 interview. “It was something I wanted to do to help my gay friends, and it just spiraled.”

But Rathbun wasn’t satisfied with being a volunteer. In the 1990s,  she began campaigning for marijuana legalization alongside Dennis Peron,  another cannabis activist she met over a joint at Cafe Flore in 1974.  She was a familiar face at Board of Supervisors meetings, often clad in  cannabis-themed outfits, with her token gold marijuana-leaf necklace  front and center.

That work paid off. In 1991, Proposition P passed with 76 percent of  the city’s vote. While not a hard-and-fast law, the measure established  that physicians would not be penalized for prescribing cannabis. Five  years later, voters passed Proposition 215, making California the first  state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“I know from smoking pot for over 30 years that this is a medicine that works,” Rathbun told the Associated Press  in a 1992 interview. “It works for the wasting syndrome. The kids have  no appetite, but when they eat a brownie, they get out of bed and make  themselves some food, And for chemotherapy, they eat half a brownie  before a session, and when they get out they eat the other half. It  eases the pain. That’s what I’m here to do.”

Rathbun’s work to assist cancer and AIDS patients also caught the  attention of medical professionals. In 1997, doctors Donald Abrams (from  UCSF) and Rick Doblin (of the Multidisciplinary Association for  Psychedelic Studies) published the study “Short-Term Effects of  Cannabinoids in Patients with HIV-1 Infection.” It stated that  “marijuana did not hurt the immune system, did not increase viral load,  did not negatively interact with the protease inhibitors, and actually  did facilitate increased caloric intake as well as weight gain.”

This study marked the first attempt to study marijuana’s effects on  people with HIV, and at the time, it was one of the most comprehensive  studies done about the effects of marijuana on the immune system.

Eventually, Rathbun’s own health problems caught up with her, and she  wasn’t able to bake anymore. A bad case of osteoarthritis, combined  with colon cancer and artificial knees ended her career as a cook. Three  years before her death, she co-authored a cookbook with Peron, Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change, which you can still find at anarchist bookstores today. But be forewarned: Her famous brownie recipe is not included.

“When and if they legalize it, I’ll sell my brownie recipe to Betty  Crocker or Duncan Hines, and take the profits and buy an old Victorian  for my kids with AIDS,” Rathbun told The New York Times. But the recipe is still missing.

Rathbun passed away in 1999 at the age of 77 at Laguna Honda Hospital  after suffering a heart attack, although her legacy continues.

“Brownie Mary was a hero for our time, in a world with so few heroes,” San Francisco attorney Larry Bittner told the Chronicle  after her death. “She, like so many strong women from the past — for  example, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman — was dedicated to helping  others. … She will rest in peace — she earned it.”

Brownie Mary’s canna-butter recipe,

from Brownie Mary herself.

Please note: All the recipes in this book must be made from the leaf  and/or shake of high-grade pot. It must be cleaned first, ground in a  blender and sifted through a flour sifter. I work with sick and dying  people all the time. Therefore, my recipes are made with simplicity as  well as good health in mind.

Marijuana Butter


1 pound of butter or margarine  5 oz. marijuana

Melt butter in large frying pan. Add marijuana. Cook Covered on low  heat for 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Let cool overnight, then  store in a covered dish in the refrigerator.

For Brownie Mary’s Pot Brownies


Purchase 1 box of pre-made brownie mix. Substitute marijuana butter for  butter/oil in the recipe. Bake. Distribute responsibly. Change world.