It was hard keeping up with the elderly woman whom San Francisco marijuana activists called Brownie Mary Rathbun.
I interviewed her in 1997, while she was riding high in the back of a gold convertible next to Dennis Peron. Brownie Mary and Dennis were grand marshals of San Fran’s annual Gay Pride parade, an event that draws about 500,000 people each year. People kept running up the car and smoking her out; by the end of the parade, she could barely wave.
Lots of famous, rich, crazy and godlike people were in the parade, but Mary and Dennis got the loudest applause.
“Look,” spectators said, “it’s the medical pot man and his little wife.”
Mary wasn’t Peron’s wife, but she was part of the gray-haired activist trio that helped put a sweet media spin on California’s medical pot movement. The other member of the troika is Hazel Rogers, a pot-smoking grandma who briefly headed Peron’s Cannabis Cultivator’s Club until it was busted forever in 1998.
Brownie Mary, who got her name for baking tens of thousands of deliciously potent pot brownies for AIDS patients during the last 13 years, died on April 10, after a long convalescence following a fall at home last August.
When I was trotting along next to her during the Pride Parade, she told me that baking brownies for her kids was just one of the many ways she’d fought for social justice and compassion. She’d been a Vietnam war protester, an abortion rights and labour activist, and long-time pot smoker. She’d also been a waitress at the International House of Pancakes, and had even waited on the cops who busted her ? which in itself qualifies her for sainthood.
Peron organized a street party celebration of Brownie Mary’s life a week after she died. He told me that he’d first met her in 1974 at a cafe, when she politely asked if she could have a hit off his joint.
The two hit it off, and became a formidable media and legalization duo. The cops didn’t like Mary’s kitchen hobby. Peron says that during her most productive period, from 1984 to 1991, she baked as many as 134 dozen pot brownies per month. Local dealers and growers gave her the leaf and shake she needed, and her entire rent-subsidized apartment building smelled like marijuana.
The police, as usual, blundered into the Brownie Mary bake-off and inadvertently turned her into a folk hero. She was arrested on the street for carrying a sack of brownies.
One of the San Fran police who busted her, narcotics officer Stephen Bossard, had arrested her for brownies a year earlier. Bossard busted little Mary, but she and Peron had the last laugh, when Bossard himself was arrested after he shot his gun in his back yard, and greeted arriving police officers naked and drunk, waving his gun at them before he surrendered.
“We took the article about him and put it on a poster next to the article about him arresting Brownie Mary,” Peron recalled. “Underneath it we had the headline ‘One of these people is a threat to your safety ? which one is it?'”
Reefer madness grandma
Brownie Mary was arrested again and again, but each time she made the police and prosecutors sorry they’d ever met her. She wore pot leaf jewelry and pro-legalization buttons to court and responded with a curse when a judge told her to take it off.
She refused to plea bargain, insisting instead that she be allowed to mount a medical necessity defense. Her defiance was almost always successful. She was found guilty a couple of times, but sentenced to community service ? hundreds of hours spent baking more pot brownies.
Soon, the media discovered her, and she began making speeches in front of government committees and was a popular guest on television and radio talk shows.
“It’s hard to hate an old lady,” Mary told me. “They tried to see reefer madness, but all they saw was their tiny grandma.” By 1992, Brownie Mary was a national legend, having received commendations from government agencies and the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, where she was named Volunteer of the Year.
“She called them her kids,” Peron recalled. “Many of them were dying alone and despised. Their families wouldn’t even visit them. She baked them something that helped ease their pain, and she also dispensed friendliness and resilience. A lot of those patients called her an angel of mercy.”
Brownie Mary was feisty and principled, but she looked so quiet and shy. This increasingly frail little old lady helped Peron gather support for pro-marijuana ballot initiatives in San Francisco, and for Proposition 215, California’s medical pot law passed in 1996.
In the waning days of her life, Mary was in lots of pain, even though people cooked brownies for her.
“She got so thin at the end,” Peron said, sadly shaking his head. “I went to move her from the chair to the bed, and she was so light, I almost lost my balance. I have seen a lot of people die, and it always hurts me, but this was too much. I really couldn’t handle it.”
Love is the secret
During the candlelight vigil held for Mary in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro district, two British guys were among the 500 people who perused the photos and newspaper articles posted to commemorate Mary’s life (even the staid New York Times carried a lengthy obituary).
The Brits seemed puzzled by her legal problems.
“You mean six police officers arrested her at gunpoint for baking brownies?” one of them said in an upper crust accent. “Look at her. She’s so sweet. America is a strange country if it arrests her.”
Indeed. And now Peron is left with the daunting task of following Brownie Mary’s last wish ? that he sell her secret recipe to the highest bidder and give the proceeds to charity.
“It’s funny,” Peron said, munching a potent green bud brownie. “This is just a regular Betty Crocker recipe with some pot thrown in. I think that what made it so special is the ingredient she added ? love.”