On this last day of Women’s History Month, a tribute to the IHOP waitress and medical cannabis advocate who changed the world
by Bridget Hennessey, Vice President, Government Relations at Weedmaps
“Remember the ladies . . . “
In a letter dated exactly 245 years ago today, Abigail Adams urged her husband, the future president (attending the second Continental Congress at the time) to “remember the ladies” and keep the consequences of women in mind as he and the delegates debated independence from Great Britain.
Abigail and John were probably America’s first political “power couple.” She was a confidant and trusted advisor to her husband throughout his political career — so much so that critics called her “Mrs. President.” She died before her son, John Quincy was elected to the office, but lived long enough to provide motherly and strategic political guidance while he served as a diplomat in London and in his first year as Secretary of State in President James Madison’s administration.
She worked “behind the scenes’’ . . . but was ahead of the times. And it’s taken historians and scholars two and a half centuries to finally begin to understand, appreciate, acknowledge, share and teach the contributions women like Abigail made to a new democracy. The founding fathers had wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Many of them “founded” too.
While she was alive, Abigail refused to publicly share her letters. Thirty years after her death, her grandson published a volume of her correspondence; but the romantic lore and inspiring sagas of a new nation and the people who built it was already chronicled, taught and passed to new generations. It was too late to add her contributions to the history and mythology of the United States of America..
There is a lesson to be learned here. Especially for the nascent cannabis industry, which, for lack of a better word, has a complicated history. But it’s a simple lesson:
Remember the lady.
From International House of Pancakes to International Cannabis Icon
Mary Jane “Brownie Mary” Rathburn (even her first name foretold her destiny) was a waitress at a San Francisco IHOP and a volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital. For several years, during the early stages of the AIDS pandemic, she baked and gave away “magically delicious” cannabis-laced brownies to men suffering from AIDS in San Francisco’s Castro District. Doing so was illegal, but it was the only way to relieve the excruciating pain and debilitating nausea — the side effects of early AIDS medication.
She is rightfully considered the godmother of the medical cannabis movement, which has made way for the current 20 billion dollar global cannabis industry.
Baking from the tiny housing project apartment, Brownie Mary favored polyester pant suits, big unfashionable eye glasses and a no fuss, grandmotherly hair style. She was no stranger to foul language, confrontation with the police or the benefits of medical cannabis for her knee and neck pain, arthritis and other ailments caused by decades of waitressing.
She was arrested three times on possession charges. Each arrest brought national and international attention and credibility to her cause.
With medical cannabis and gay rights activist Dennis Peron, she published Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook & Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change. It did not include her brownie recipe. That remains a mystery. She and Perone, along with a few others founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, located in the Castro. It was the first cannabis dispensary in the United States.
She helped organize support and was one of the most effective spokespeople for the 1996 ballot initiative that allowed medical cannabis in California. That campaign served as a blueprint for other states. She had leadership roles in other medical cannabis campaigns at the local, state and national level.
She died in 1999 at the age of 77. San Francisco proclaimed an official Brownie Mary Day in 1992 to honor her work. She exemplifies the term “straight ally” to the LGBTQ community, and remains an emotional lynchpin connecting the cannabis legalization movement with LGBTQ rights movement.
Why does she matter?
Almost every industry in the United States has an individual whose life story exemplifies it. They may not have created or discovered that industry, but there is something about their story that helps consumers forge a personal connection, create goodwill and even instill affection for it. They put a human face, a history, a narrative from the past on an specific industry. Think Ford and the auto industry. The Wrights and aviation. Carnegie and steel.
Mary Jane Rathburn and cannabis?
Brownie Mary had the same qualities and similar impact of other Women’s History Month-worthy women. Many called her — and still do today — the “Florence Nightingale of cannabis.”
She referred to the young men suffering from AIDS as “her kids” — just like fellow hell-raiser Mary Harris “Mother” Jones referred to the union mine workers killed in strike-related violence as “her boys.”
And she plays a role in gastronomy history. According to foodies, her unique, sophisticated and mysterious brownie recipe is an important chapter in the simple dessert’s antiquity, which dates back to 1896. Sister cuisine rebel Julia Child would be proud. As would her culinary cannabis compadre Alice B. Toklas.
Mary certainly took to heart and exemplifies Dolores Huerta’s famous quote:: “Every person is a potential activist. Every minute is a chance to change the world.” (Full disclosure: my favorite Dolores quote is particularly relevant for this essay: “That’s the history of the world. His story is told. Hers isn’t.”)
The term “trailblazer” is often attributed to those who did something “first.” So consider this: Two simple acts by the late Princess Diana — shaking hands with an AIDS patient in 1987 and hugging a toddler infected with the disease in 1989 — are cited as ground breaking events — and often credit Diana with changing the way most people think about AIDS. Mary’s first two arrests — for activity that involved touching hundreds of people living with AIDS — were in 1981 and 1982. . . five years before Diana’s visit to the AIDS ward (It should be noted that President Ronald Reagan would make his first public speech about AIDS six weeks after Diana’s first visit).
Although she never said “AIDS” in her extraordinary speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, most people believe that Teresa Heinz Kerry was specifically addressing AIDS patients abandoned by their families and dying alone, as well as the broader LGBTQ community when she noted there would be “a mom in the White House who loves you,” if her husband John was elected President. Mary’s third arrest was in 1992 — twelve years before Mrs. Kerry’s DNC remarks.
I don’t mean to diminish the late princess or Mrs. Kerry, or their important accomplishments. But let’s put this in context. Mary made it possible for these better known women to blaze a trail.
She was a woman of very limited means, working as a waitress most of her life. Women of wealth and substance — like Oprah Winfrey, Melinda Gates, Laurene Powell Jobs and Ellen Malcom used and use their money (earned, married to, or inherited) to effectuate change . . . and we are grateful they do. But Mary had none of the above. She changed the world by sheer force of will, tenacity, ingenuity and moxie.
Her marriage was brief, and resulted in a daughter who was tragically killed in a car accident. Most people would describe her life as unremarkable and lonely. She had no reflective glory to operate from, no powerful husband providing a “platform” — which often comes with staff, resources and clout — not to mention news media and general public interest. Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama come quickly to mind when I’m asked about my political role models and inspirations. But I am not unaware that their president husbands provided a powerful base for them to forge change and make history. Women like Patsy Mink, Grace Hopper, Shirley Chisholm, Frances Perkins and Mary didn’t have that boost. We live a better life every single day because of what they did. Sadly, few of us have ever heard of them.
Popular culture plays an important role in educating us about history and the women and men who make it. I will explore that topic more and how it relates to cannabis in a future essay. But I will say this now: We need more research into Mary’s life. We need to tell her story more in magazines, newspapers, podcasts and social media. We should commission a theatrical play about her, and have a statue sculpted of her likeness and installed prominently in Sacramento or Washington, DC. Let’s get portraits of her in museums; streets named after her in cities across the country; get her inducted into every women’s hall of fame; and exhibits created about her in every women’s museum.
We often hear that the motion picture industry offers no good parts for actresses over the age of 50, no good stories of older women that are worth telling. Think of what Susan Sarandon, Sally Field, Diane Keaton, Glenn Close or Meryl Streep could do with this character and story. And Reese Witherspoon and Jodi Foster . . . you’re looking for compelling, viable and bankable stories to turn into motion pictures? Here’s my pitch: There’s Something About Mary.
Her name deserves to be among the many I’ve cited in this essay. And you don’t have to be a stoner or a medical patient to admire, appreciate and emulate Brownie Mary. I’m neither. But I am amazed and inspired by her commitment, compassion. . . and grit. And I look forward to sharing her story with my daughters.
We’ve got to remember this lady.
Bridget Hennessey is a Vice President of Weedmaps and heads the company’s Government Relations Department.