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California and the West

'Brownie Mary' Rathbun Dies; Advocated Medical Marijuana

Rebel: She defied law to hand out pot-laced baked goods, believing they helped the San Francisco AIDS patients she called 'my kids.'

April 13, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Brownie Mary" Rathbun, the gray-haired rebel whose arrests for giving marijuana-laced brownies to dying AIDS patients bolstered the medicinal marijuana movement, died Saturday of a heart attack in a San Francisco nursing home. She was 77.

Rathbun became a fixture of San Francisco's Castro district in the 1970s when, carrying a napkin-lined basket, she sold her self-described "magical brownies" for $2 to $4 apiece to passersby.

She turned to charitable baking in the 1980s, when the AIDS crisis began to peak among the city's gays and claimed the lives of many of the young men she had befriended after her only child died in a car accident.

At the height of her baking operation, from the mid-1980s to about 1990, she had so many requests from sick people for her marijuana treats that she pulled names from a cookie jar to decide who would receive them. Along the way, she became an outspoken advocate for legalizing the medical use of marijuana, which she believed eased AIDS patients' pain and boosted their appetites.

"My kids are dying, some of them in the streets. Why marijuana is not allowed is something I will never, never understand," a tearful Rathbun said in 1995.

The next year, California passed Proposition 215, becoming the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Rathbun came to San Francisco from Minnesota in the 1940s and worked as a waitress for four decades. When her daughter died in a car accident in the 1970s, she began to befriend many of the young gay men who were flocking to the city and she realized that she could still be someone's mother if she wanted to.

In the mid-1980s, when many of her friends began falling ill, she decided to give them the marijuana-laced brownies, believing they would lighten their pain and help them eat and thus avoid the wasting syndrome that accompanied AIDS.

She passed out the brownies in clear defiance of the law, not, she once told the Chicago Tribune, because she wanted to be a hero. But she did it because "it was something I wanted to do to help my gay friends."

Soon her baking efforts expanded and she was producing hundreds of brownies every few months. The marijuana was donated by growers. It would simply appear on the doorstep of her public housing project apartment near Haight-Ashbury. But she paid for the sugar, flour, chocolate and other baking supplies out of her $650 monthly Social Security checks.

She gained national attention with her 1992 arrest, when police caught her in the act of whipping up her brownies with 2.5 pounds of marijuana at a friend's home in the Sonoma County town of Cazadero.

The charges were dismissed several months later, after the district attorney for Sonoma County realized the trial of "the grandmother who bakes pot brownies" would be a media circus.

Rathbun did "straight' baking, too, whipping up peanut butter and chocolate cookies that could only give a sugar high, delivering them by the dozens to AIDS patients at city hospitals.

Every Thursday for more than 16 years, the petite figure with curly white hair showed up on Ward 86--the AIDS ward--of San Francisco General Hospital where she volunteered, visiting patients and carrying specimens to the lab. Although she had no grandchildren, she acted like everyone's grandmother, calling every patient "honey" or "sweetheart" and regarding them all as "my kids."

"She was a legend around here," J.B. Molaghan, a nurse practitioner at the AIDS clinic, said Monday of the woman who was voted the hospital's volunteer of the year for three years.

Rathbun, he recalled, maintained her visits even when she was in great pain. An arthritis sufferer, she had two artificial knees. She also suffered a bout of colon cancer, Molaghan said.

She described herself as an anarchist; she often wore a cannabis leaf pendant, even during a court appearance after her 1992 arrest. Molaghan called her "refreshingly irreverent," a deeply compassionate woman whose often off-color language clashed with her little old lady image.

"She adopted everybody," he said. "She helped a lot of people who otherwise were unable to receive pain relief."

She scrimped and saved to buy the ingredients for her baked goodies, Molaghan said, sometimes freezing parts of a batch for the next week if she didn't have enough money to bake a fresh batch.

She died at San Francisco's Laguna Honda nursing home, a public facility for the aged poor.

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