How Pot Brownies Saved Lives

Chocolate brownies

In a small San Francisco apartment, an elderly woman bent over the oven. Her kind, grandmotherly face partially hidden behind large glasses, she pulled the brownies out as the timer dinged. These were only some of the upwards 600 brownies she would make that day, ready to head to the hospital to give to her kids. “Her kids”, as she called them, were adult gay men who languished in the San Francisco hospitals as they underwent the slow painful process of dying due to AIDS and government neglect.

In the midst of the AIDS crisis, Brownie Mary Jane Rathbun would distribute free cannabis-infused brownies to hundreds of the dying, in an effort to soothe their pain and bolster their spirit as they succumbed to an incurable disease. This act of generosity from the old activist became the face of the medical marijuana movement of the early 1990s.   

Mary Jane Rathburn, an elderly woman, stands in her kitchen showing off food in a crockpot with a marijuana leaf pin visible on her shirt



The pot brownie is one of the most emblematic symbols of the counterculture. As one of the most recognizable ways to consume cannabis, these magical brownies have been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows, and are often the first edible the beginning stoner encounters. 

Our story begins in 1957, with the publication of the Alice B Toklas Cookbook. Written by famed Parisian lesbian Alice B Toklas (*the life partner of Gertrude Stein), this cookbook features “Hasheesh Fudge,” the first English-language published recipe for a cannabis brownie. This recipe inspired countless members of the counterculture to start experimenting with magic brownie recipes, and became associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s. This fact was referenced in the drug exploitation film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, which came out at the height of flower power. The film features Toklas’s cookbook and brownies as a central plot point in the conversion of a young square into a groovy toker. These magical treats have continued to take a hold on popular cannabis culture, and they were brought there by a lesbian! 

At the time of this writing, generations of stoners and medical users alike have put their own unique spin on this tasty treat. There are as many recipes and infusion methods out there as there are people to eat them.

However, the humble hash brownie still had a bigger role to play, a part of history intertwined forever with the LGBT community. In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis hit, causing a painful pandemic that still affects the LGBT community today. At the same time, the cannabis legalization movement was picking up traction, with medical marijuana at the forefront of the legalization efforts. Magic brownies would end up playing a central role in both the AIDS crisis and the battle to legalize medical marijuana, brought together under one person: Mary Jane Rathbun, or as she was better known, Brownie Mary. 

An issue of the magazine "High Times" meaturing Mary Jane Rathburn posing with a cannabis plant

Brownie Mary would be arrested thrice in the late 80s and early 90s. Each time, she found herself acquitted on the various marijuana charges thrown at her, with juries reluctant to convict an elderly woman performing acts of medical kindness and mercy. Rathbun was involved heavily in the advocacy groups for medical marijuana, and she soon became the sympathetic national face of the movement.   

Medical marijuana legalization and the gay pride movement are forever intertwined, as the acts of kindness of one woman helped kickstart the beginning of cannabis legalization in the United States. For that, we are in deep gratitude. 

Happy Pride from Pulsar!


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