The Healing Power of the Brownie

By: Cecil King   

The Healing Power of the Brownie

Visitors strolling through the city streets of Missouri’s popular tourist destinations such as Branson or Lake Ozark can sample a variety of treats like Ozark fudge, homemade chocolates, country-style brownies, creamy pralines, nostalgic penny candies and other delicious Missouri sweets.

However, no Missouri candy or chocolate shop can sell anything with the punch as a cannabis-infused sweet available at a legal cannabis store or medical dispensary in Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, or any other state where legal cannabis is available.

Modern cannabis foodies have infused, injected and baked cannabis into just about every type of modern candy, beverage and food imaginable. These new food inventions, or “edibles,” may well represent the future of cannabis product development as legalization spreads.

Cannabis purists consider edibles as the “beginner” method for new consumers. Purists prefer the finer dose control of smoking or vaping. They have little patience to wait up to two hours for an edible to kick in. However, edibles originally fulfilled a more utilitarian medical purpose and the classic food enlisted for the delivery task was the home-made brownie.

In the early 80s, Mary Jane Rathbun’s “magically delicious” cannabis-infused brownies helped patients infected with HIV AIDS at San Francisco’s General Hospital counteract their “wasting syndrome.” This middle-aged woman earned the nickname “Brownie Mary” and as a hospital volunteer she delivered her “medicine” to help alleviate AIDS and cancer patients’ weight loss, fatigue, weakness and loss of appetite.

The history of consuming foods containing marijuana for medical purposes extends back thousands of years. For centuries the cannabis plant was used in teas, milk mixtures, oils and other elixirs for its antiemetic, anti-inflamatory, anesthetic and anti-phlegmatic properties. Cannabis treated many human maladies from earache to leprosy and from glaucoma to arthritis.

In a clinical hospital setting, Rathbun’s infused brownies were the only acceptable method for cannabis medicine delivery, especially for a cancer patient with a compromised respiratory system. High potency and a longer duration are the hallmarks of medical edibles used to treat acute and chronic illnesses. Potent medical edibles are not appropriate for new cannabis customers or inexperienced recreational consumers.

Rathbun was arrested three times for making and distributing her magical brownies. She served community service time after pleading guilty to her first offense of nine counts of possession in 1981. Undercover police found 18 pounds of cannabis and 54 dozen cannabis brownies at her home bakery operation.

Her brownie customers were mainly gay men. She observed early in the AIDS crisis that cannabis helped with wasting syndrome and cancer, so she gave her medical brownies to sick people for free. Often she received donations of cannabis, but the cost of her baking supplies came out of her meager monthly social security check.

With long-time friend and fellow cannabis activist, Dennis Peron, they convinced a local gay activist group that cannabis was indeed “medicine” and should be available to treat AIDS. Their activism helped convinced the voters in San Francisco to pass Proposition P in 1991. Prop P allowed doctors to recommend cannabis without repercussions from the state or the California Medical Association.

A year later Peron opened the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States with Rathbun’s help. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club primarily helped those suffering from AIDS. Rathbun’s third arrest occurred that year for again making cannabis brownies at a grower’s home. She was charged with felony possession of 2.5 pounds of cannabis in a brownie mix capable of producing her standard batch of 50 dozen brownies.

Rathbun’s case attracted international coverage. Using a successful defense tactic of “medical necessity” from a previous 1974 case, she testified that her actions were justified to aid others in need. She was acquitted of all charges.

By 1996 Peron had co-authored California’s landmark Proposition 215, “Compassionate Use Act of 1996”, and with Rathbun’s help campaigning and her notoriety, the statewide voter initiative was successful. Medical cannabis became legal in California. Patients could possess and cultivate cannabis for personal medical use with a physician recommendation.

Every April 20th (a.k.a. 420) is an annual rally date for cannabis activists everywhere to take a stand against cannabis prohibition. A more poignant anniversary is ten days earlier when Mary Jane Rathbun, aka “Brownie Mary”, the “mother of the medical cannabis movement” died of a heart attack at age 77 on April 10, 1999. That’s the day you can join other cannabis activists and raise a “brownie” toast to her legacy.