September 9, 1992


By Paul DeRienzo

Brownie Mary Rathbun, the grey-haired 70 year old resident of a San Francisco housing project for senior citizens, has been named volunteer of the year for the past three years in a row at San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward. Despite a citywide day in Brownie Mary’s honor recently voted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors her next home may be a jail ward.

In July Brownie Mary was arrested while baking her trademark confection, chocolate fudge and nut brownies each laced with about 3 grams of marijuana. She faces up to five years in prison for possession of under two pounds of pot but Brownie say’s she’s willing to go to jail for her cause because marijuana helps AIDS Sufferers relieve the nausea that frequently accompanies chemotherapy. The federal government doesn’t recognize any therapeutic value for pot and doctors are not allowed to prescribe it without permission from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The medical profession does recognize that marijuana is at least somewhat effective in blocking nausea and allows a synthetic form of THC, the active ingredient in pot, to be prescribed under the name Marinol. Brownie Mary argues that Marinol pills are undigestible by most critically ill people while her brownies not only stop nausea but stimulate the appetite of people wasting away from AIDS.

Brownie Mary wits recently in New York City to appear on the Maury Povitch Show and CBS Good Morning She also spoke with Downtown about her concerns for the people Suffering front AIDS that she calls "my kids."

We met in the coffee shop of a Midtown hotel where Brownie Mary was enjoying brunch with a fellow San Francisco activist. Brownie Mary was Obviously tickled by the limo on loan from CBS where she had appeared that morning and she was anxious to tour the city before her plane left for the West Cost. She was dressed in a red pants suit and bright red sweater with a red ribbon on her left shoulder. Around her neck was the image of a green marijuana leaf on a thin gold chain.

Paul DeRienzo: Why are you here in New York?

Brownie Mary: I am from San Francisco and I’ve been a volunteer on the AIDS Outpatient ward for nine years. I was making marijuana brownies for my unfortunately I had to kind of play God, which is not right but I couldn’t make enough to give at needed some. So I picked out the worst—got a dozen every two or three months. Meanwhile, I got this dope from volunteers, restaurants donated eggs…

Pot totally takes away the nausea, it is a wonderful appetite stimulant for the kids with the wasting syndrome and it make‘s them feel good for a day, and an maybe get out of bed that day. They may feel like walking to the kitchen and doing something for themselves.

Their self-respect has been taken away because they’re constantly relying on either a visiting nurse or a hospice nurse or one of the volunteers. They feel like hell because they lose their dignity with somebody always having to wait on them. If one day they can feel good—great.

What led you to give patients the brownies?

I was busted 12 years because I had a cottage industry going. I was making magically delicious brownies. That was a legitimate bust because I was selling and I got three years probation and 500 hours of community service. A soup kitchen in San Francisco called my lawyer and said they’d love to have Brownie Mary come here and work.

When the AIDS epidemic broke seriously at the end of 1982 I joined Shanti, which is San Francisco’s patient care program that dealt with the terminally ill. When we became overwhelmed by the AIDS epidemic they just worked with AIDS patients. Shanti had the first practical support group and I joined for it for that reason. That’s where we had clients and I’d do their banking or cooked. I also cooked twice a week in the very first Shanti house to house people with AIDS who didn’t have anyplace else to live. Now there’s 20 or 30 of them in San Francisco alone. We were all sworn to secrecy because people on either side might freak.

I cooked at the Shanti house the first two years until the dinner program started falling apart because the kids were getting sicker and I couldn’t keep it together. In 1983 we went to San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86 where we started the Ward’s first volunteer group. When I first went there I thought it’d be for a year and a half -- ten years later I’m still there.

When did you notice that brownies helped people suffering from AIDS?

I’d been a pot activist for years. I know that medical marijuana was used for hundreds and thousands of years. It was one of the most prescribed medicines in this country up until the Anslinger (Harry Anslinger, first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics responsible for antimarijuana laws in the late 1930s) -- reefer madness craze.

Since I’ve been a pot activist for so many years I knew the medical use of marijuana, so I passed the word among the growers that the old lady needs pot and I need it for my kids on the Ward. I call them all my kids because anyone t them could have been or anybody else’s kids. Listen up Middle Class America because this is your issue too.

What effect did you see when your patients got brownies?

If one of my kids had chemotherapy that day they would when they woke up eat half a brownie and take his chemotherapy and he would have no nausea. He would leave the hospital and eat the other half a brownie and in a hour he’d be hungry.

They need it as an appetite stimulant for the wasting syndrome. They can’t eat because of nausea and diarrhea so they literally waste away. I have seen people lose thirty pounds in two weeks because they can hold nothing in their stomachs. If they eat a brownie they don’t have the nausea and they are able to, ("K. The main, thing about medical marijuana is that it helps these patients to have a better quality of life.

What is a marijuana brownie?

I’m not about to give you my recipe but I can tell how much dope is in a two inch square – it’s about two joints.

Is it stronger when eaten?

Yes! It’s a different high, it’s more of an appetite stimulant, munchies, nonnauseating type --it’s not a drug, it’s an herb. For these kids it’s a great help-I’ve seen these kids not throw-up after a chemotherapy where they’ll throw-up a Marinol pill. Then they’re freaking out because they think they should pick the Marinol pill out of their vomit and try and swallow it again. They don’t do this with marijuana brownies.

What’s a Marinol Pill?

Marinol is a synthetic THC pill that the DEA has allowed in this country. THC is the most active ingredient in marijuana. But the problem here is that the federal government on one hand has said they have no studies to prove that marijuana is in any way medicinal. Yet on the other hand they make A Marinol pill with which some company is making billions on a year and Marinol is THC, which is the same as in the herb marijuana. What is it? They’re contradicting themselves.

Ninety percent of my kids don’t like Marinol because they get side effects from it and they’re putting all kinds of pills in their systems from AZT to DDI anyway. They’re systems are toxiced out so to speak. If they like the pills that’s great but I question the contradiction behind it. If they don’t want to take the pill-why can’t I give them a brownie-if that’s their preference.

How did you get arrested?

I was at a friend’s house in the suburbs baking brownies. I can’t do it in San Francisco because I live in senior housing and if I got caught with any kind of illegal substance I can be evicted in three days.

They thought I was just making marijuana brownies for the hell of it. They did not know that I was making marijuana brownies for AIDS patients-I was not selling them-I was giving them away. I’m facing five years in prison but if that’s what it takes marijuana goddess chose me to take this bust to get the word out-fine, so be it.

How much was the bail?

Our bail was $5,000 apiece. My friend put up his property as collateral because we have no money. I live on $650 a month and after I pay my bills I have $60 a week to live on.

Did they think you were a risk of flight?

They didn’t know that I have two new knees but the standard bail for under two pounds is $5,000.

Doesn’t California have liberal marijuana laws?

You can possess less than an ounce for your own personal use and then it’s only a $100 ticket, which nobody pays hopefully. Having under two pounds is what I’m charged with.

Is the State really going to prosecute this?

You bet they’re going to prosecute it. I’m facing five years in jail but I’ll 90 to jail for my cause. Compassion is not illegal as far as I’m concerned. If I have to go to jail I will do it because I will not cop a plea-no way. In the first place I wouldn’t pass the piss tests in California which would be part of my plea bargaining. No way! I’m not plea bargaining with them at all period. Compassion is not a crime and goddammit I’ll go to jail for my cause.

Whales been the reaction in San Francisco to your arrest?

They think I’m the Queen of Pot. The support has been absolutely overwhelming, everybody at the hospital, all the kids and all the staff are with me all the way, everybody in San Francisco is for me.

We went before the Board of Supervisors to implement Proposition P and we passed it in San Francisco by 80 percent.

What is Proposition P?

Proposition P states that we want to be able to grow and cultivate five to six plants for our own medicinal use and we will not be—harassed by the police or the District Attorney’s office.

Last week we went before a committee of the Board of Supervisors to ask them that they implement Prop P. We had an overwhelming turnout. Doctors! All kinds of people came.

Why do you do this Brownie Mary?

It’s just for seeing your kids come up to the ward one day and maybe they make it on their own; they took the bus and use their cane. He doesn’t have an attendant with him, he isn’t in a wheelchair and its ’Hey old lady what kind of cookies we got today?’ because I make 350 straight cookies and take coffee and cream and sugar up to the ward every Thursday. I’m the cookie lady and I’ve be en for almost 10 years and these are totally straight cookies.

Is that what you’re doing now?

Oh Yeah! Every Thursday I still go out. Last week it was chocolate chip and I’ll probably make coconut this week.

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