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Brownie Mary

Brownie Mary and Her Contributions to Medical Cannabis 



If you’ve ever had a pot brownie, then you have Brownie Mary to thank for that. An elderly woman known for her exceptional baking skills, is not uncommon for many grandmas. Except Mary wasn’t baking treats for her grandkids, she was crafting cannabis edibles for a community of disenfranchised people that she cared for as if they were her own children.  

Often referred to as the Florence Nightingale of HIV/AIDS, and the creator of the weed brownie, Mary was famous for baking delicious, cannabis-infused treats for gay men and other people who were suffering from wasting syndrome, a condition categorized by diminished appetite and significant weight loss. It’s common in people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses.  

In addition to her humanitarian work, for which she was arrested 3 times, Brownie Mary was also the reason California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis, as she had a big part in the passage of Proposition 215 back in 1996.  

Bottom line, Mary was an amazing, powerhouse of woman. And she played such a huge role in the cannabis industry as we know it today, that everyone who smokes weed should know her name and her story. Let’s take a closer look at the incredible life of Brownie Mary.  

Who is Brownie Mary? 

Mary Jane Rathbun (yes, Mary Jane is her birth name given to her by her conservative Irish Catholic mother) was born in on December 22, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois. Soon after, her family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Mary attended a strict catholic school. One of her first acts of rebellion was at 13, when she hit a nun who tried to cane her.  

She moved on her own when she was a teenager and took to waitressing to support herself (keep in mind, this was during a time when it was especially hard for a young, unmarried woman to do such a thing). She continued to work as a waitress for most of her adult life. From a young age, she was drawn to activism and got involved in many important causes, from campaigning for miners’ rights to form unions in Wisconsin, to promoting women’s healthcare and abortion rights in Minneapolis.  

She moved to San Francisco, California, during World War II. Shortly after getting there, she married a man she met at a USO dance and had a daughter named Peggy, who was born in 1955. They divorced shortly after and Mary moved with her daughter to Reno, Nevada. In the early 1970s, Peggy was killed by a drunk driver, and Mary moved back to San Francisco.  

Cannabis activism 

Shortly after moving back to San Francisco, Mary met Dennis Peron at Café Flore in the Castro district, in a change encounter that would change the trajectory of her activism work forever. Peron was a well-known cannabis and LGBTQ activist. He was a prominent figure in California politics, and was an adamant supporter of medical cannabis use. He watched it how it provided relief to his partner, who eventually died from AIDS in 1990. He wanted other people to be able to benefit from weed as well.  

Mary started baking her brownies, and Peron was selling them at his Big Top pot supermarket on Castro Street – and thus Brownie Mary was born. The majority of Mary’s customers were gay men, especially after HIV/AIDS began to spread more rampantly in the 1980s. Noticing this, Mary started providing her brownies to sick people, whom she referred to as her “kids”, totally free of charge. Her $650 monthly social security check, along with donations from the community, helped her purchase baking supplies.  

“I know from smoking pot for over 30 years that this is a medicine that works,” Brownie Mary stated. “It works for the wasting syndrome; these kids have no appetite; but when they eat a brownie, they get out of bed and make themselves some food. And for chemotherapy, they eat half a brownie before a session, and when they get out, they eat the other half. It eases the pain. That’s what I’m here to do.” 

Around 1984, Brownie Mary started volunteering every week in the AIDS ward (Ward 86) at San Francisco General Hospital. She often helped by wheeling patients to and from the radiology department and taking their specimens to the lab. In 1986, she was named “Volunteer of the Year” by the hospital ward. TV reporter and author, Carol Pogash, also profiled Mary her 1992 book titled: As Real as it Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic.  

Multiple arrests  

By the early 1980s, Mary was baking about 600 brownies per day. She advertised them in on local bulletin boards around San Francisco, calling them her “original recipe brownies” that were “magically delicious”. Eventually, an undercover officer caught on to what she was doing and a raid was conducted on her home on January 14, 1981. 

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Police found over 18 pounds of cannabis flower, 650 brownies, and some other drugs and paraphernalia. She was 57-years-old at the time of this arrest, and this is the time that the media started referring to her openly as Brownie Mary. In this case, she ended up pleading guilty to nine counts of possession and served three years’ probation as well as 500 hours of community service.  

A little over a year later, on December 7, 1982, Mary was walking down Market Street to deliver a batch of brownies to a friend who had cancer, when she happened to run into one of the officers involved in her arrest.  He searched her bag and found about four dozen brownies. She was arrested and charged with probation violation and multiple counts of possession, but the district attorney dropped the charges against her.  

Fast forward a decade to July 19, 1992, and that’s when Brownie Mary was arrested for her third time. She was held up during the middle of the baking process, while pouring cannabis into brownie batter at the home of a local grower. She was charged with felony possession again, 2.5 pounds this time, and released on bail. The district attorney tried to prosecute her, but she plead not guilty and was eventually acquitted of these charges too.  

Her legal team argued the defense of “medical necessity”, claiming that Mary was “able to testify that her deliveries were made to assist others in need, not to advance individual greed, that the nobility of her actions outweighed the reprehensibility of her offense according to the law.” 

In one of her most famous moments at a San Francisco rally in 1992, Rathbun reportedly cried out: “If the narcs think I’m gonna stop baking brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go f*** themselves in Macy’s window”. This about a month after her third arrest, and she continued to bake about 600 brownies every day throughout the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.  

Prop 215  

In the early 90s, Mary helped her friend Dennis Peron open the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States, known as the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. The Buyers Club operated from 1992 to 1998 and had over 8,000 members at one point. During that time, Peron and a group of cannabis activists drafted Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act.  

Prop 215 passed in 1996 with more than 55 percent of the vote, making California the first state to permit the medicinal use of cannabis. Less than two years later, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Nevada passed their own medical cannabis initiatives. Today, 37 states have medical cannabis, and 21 of those have passed recreational use laws as well.  

“It wasn’t the hippies per se, it wasn’t the standard establishment marijuana movement players, but it was the gay people who legalized pot in California because of the AIDS epidemic,” says John Entwistle, Peron’s husband and co-author of Proposition 215. “That’s been forgotten to some extent.” And Brownie Mary was right there at the heart of it all, lovingly helping people in her community while at the same time, bringing media attention to the cause.  

Brownie Mary’s legacy 

The work Mary Jane Rathbun did for AIDS patients is definitely under looked and under appreciated these days. During a time when there was no relief from the symptoms they experienced…she was their guardian angel. 

After the passage of Prop 215, Mary’s health began to decline, and she suffered from a few different health conditions including osteoarthritis, COPD, and colon cancer. As expected, she self-medicated with cannabis to ease her pain. In 1999, at the age of 76, Mary passed away from a heart attack (December 22, 1922 – April 10, 1999). The following week, 300 people gathered in a candlelight vigil in her name at Castros on Market Street. 

“We loved to ask her, ‘What’s the recipe?’ and she always made Betty Crocker jokes,” Entwistle remembered. “She once explained it to me: When you’re buying boxes of brownies, look at how much oil the recipe calls for, and go for the one that uses the most oil. But the mystery—the recipe for her brownies—goes to her grave.” 

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Dennis Peron and his legacy of legalizing cannabis in California




In light of Remembrance Day earlier this month, we want to tell the story of Dennis Peron, a Vietnam War veteran and a cannabis activist who helped legalize marijuana in California. 

The early years of activism 

Beginning in the 1970s, Dennis spent more than 40 years campaigning for the legalization of cannabis. His career began when he returned home to San Francisco after serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. When he returned, he brought with him a duffle bag full of Thai sticks.

The upstairs of The Island c. 1977 by Michael Zagaris

Dennis then set up an illegal storefront in the heart of Castro street to sell it. He opened a vegetarian restaurant called The Island, where he would use the upstairs of the restaurant to sell pot. The restaurant attracted a lot of people. It became a hippie hangout that slowly transformed into a political hub. Dennis took the opportunity and formed the Island Democratic Club.  

The first political campaign that came out of the club was Proposition 19 in 1972. A passing of prop 19 would mean that everyone over the age of 18 in the State of California could use, transport and possess cannabis for personal use without punishment. Unfortunately, the proposition was defeated. 

Although the proposition resulted in defeat, they saw it as a victory for the club. The fact that it got on the ballot was a huge deal. Dennis also had a chance to connect with people like Gordon Brownell. Brownell became California’s first registered cannabis reform lobbyist in 1973 and served on the board of cannabis advocacy non-profit, California NORML.

It seems that the failure of Proposition 19 gave Dennis more impetus to continue his cannabis activism. He joined the Youth International Party (Yippies) and was one of their prominent speakers. In 1991, Dennis organized another proposition, Proposition P. Essentially, the proposition said that a sick person could legally obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes in California.

Licensed physicians shall not be penalized for or restricted from prescribing hemp preparations for medical purposes.

-Proposition P [November, 1991]

Dennis Peron speaking at a Yippies event (Forbes via Getty Images)

The resolution passed, marking the beginning of cannabis legalization in the United States. Suddenly, the conversation on medical use and the legalization of cannabis captured the public eye.

Of course, Peron’s cannabis activity also attracted the attention of the authorities. The police constantly harassed and put him under surveillance. Dennis challenged the police repeatedly and blatantly. In response, they searched his club, arresting many, only for him to be out there again the next day with a speaker to talk about police absurdity and how denying people the use and sale of cannabis is an illegal act.

The San Francisco narcs hated him. Dennis even got shot once during a raid at his office on Castro Street. The police wore plain clothes and looked like thugs. Peron thought some gang was robbing him, so he stood at the top of the stairs and threw down a four-gallon water bottle to block the intruders. That resulted in him getting shot in the thigh.   

On the night of January 27, 1990, a San Francisco narcs squad raided Peron’s home and found four ounces of cannabis. The pot belonged to his long-term life partner Jonathan West, who was dying of AIDS and suffering from Kaposi’s Sarcoma. His medication made him too nauseous to eat, so he used pot as a panacea to help him eat, sleep and feel relief from pain. In August, West testified in court that the amount of cannabis seized by the police was his and that Peron had nothing to do with it. About a month later, West passed away from AIDS.

The AIDS epidemic and its association with the legalization movement

The AIDS epidemic in the 80s swept through San Francisco like a storm. AIDS emerged in 1981, and by 1985 16,458 people had died of the disease across the United States. Dennis witnessed many deaths, including his partner Jonathan.

He recalled West was taking many prescribed drugs that gave him several side effects like nausea or loss of appetite. Cannabis was an effective remedy for that. A lot of Peron’s HIV-positive friends also relied on cannabis to relieve symptoms of nausea, pain and insomnia. So, Dennis decided to become less involved in politics and focused more on getting cannabis to AIDS patients and those in need.

Brownie Mary and the Cannabis Buyers Club

If Dennis Peron had a fanatic cannabis activism kindred spirit, Mary Jane Rathbun, aka Brownie Mary, was it. 

Mary Jane Rathburn, also known as Brownie Mary in August 4, 1992 (San Francisco Chronicle) 

In 1981, Rathburn got arrested for selling weed brownies. Her sentence was 500 hours of community service. Through her volunteer work, she came to care for the very first few AIDS patients in San Francisco. She even adopted some of them as her children. And from that point, she dedicated her life to baking weed brownies to help treat AIDS patients. At the height of the epidemic, Rathburn was baking about 1,600 brownies a month. 

Her activism and volunteer work were equivocal. She got arrested a couple more times for making weed brownies. At the same time, she received several volunteer of the year awards. In August 1992, Rathburn met with San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to advocate for the medical value of cannabis. Her testimony not only persuaded the panel to pass a resolution putting an end to the arrest and suppression of medical cannabis suppliers, but it also led to the creation of Brownie Mary’s Day.

That same year, Mary and Dennis opened the Cannabis Buyers’ Club. The club was not only a medical cannabis dispensary but a community center for the HIV-positive, the LGBT community and those with other terminal illnesses. Dennis also employed the people from the community to work for the club.

Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron in 1993

Located at Church and 14th street, the club had a cafe and several lounges filled with couches and other furniture where people could relax and be comfortable. Members came there to smoke, socialize and snack at the club.

Inside of the Cannabis Buyers’ Club

The closedown of Cannabis Buyers Club and proposition 215

By 1995, the Cannabis Buyers’ Club had over 4000 members. Although the club operated illegally, the city of San Francisco turned a blind eye to Peron’s business, mainly because his work brought many benefits to the community.

With the growing membership and support, Peron and Rathburn lobbied for Proposition 215 in 1996, a state ballot that would allow anyone in California to possess and cultivate marijuana for medical treatment. The campaign received a lot of media attention, support and philanthropic contributions. It was qualified for the 1996 ballot in California with 763,000 signatures in support.

Proposal 215 was leading in the polls by a margin of 60-40. The opposition leader was Attorney General Dan Lungren, a staunch supporter of the war on drugs. His strategy was to turn the vote into a referendum on Dennis and his cannabis club. With the proposition moving in Peron’s favour, however, the attorney general had another idea.

A San Francisco sheriff’s deputy carries confiscated marijuana plants from the Cannabis Cultivators’ Club 

On August 4, 1996, more than 100 agents of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement raided the Cannabis Buyers Club. Simultaneously, five other squads raided the homes of the club members and staff around the city. Authorities seized a total of 150 pounds of cannabis, $60,000 in cash and 400 plants. A day later, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge William Cahill ordered the club to close.

Two months after the raid on charges of conspiracy and possession, transportation and sale of cannabis, they arrested Peron in his home. On October 12, he left Alameda County Jail. 

The legacy of Dennis Peron

On November 5, 1996, Proposition 215 was passed with 56 percent of the vote, legalizing the use of medical cannabis in the entire state of California. 

Peron moved to a farm in Lake County where he spent the final years of his life. He continued to grow and give out pot to people. He passed away in 2018. 

Dennis Peron at his Lake County farm (San Francisco Chronicle)

With 2 pounds of Thai sticks brought back from Vietnam, Dennis Peron joined the cannabis crusade. He sold a lot of weed, got in trouble with the law, helped fight the AIDS epidemic, opened the first public cannabis dispensary in the country, and successfully convinced Californians to legalize cannabis. Even after his death, his legacy continues to influence the politics of cannabis. On October 13, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act (SB-34) for the purpose of supporting medical cannabis compassion care programs.

Thanks to people like Dennis that we can smoke openly and freely today. He served his country well beyond the battlefield. The only thing left to say is Salut, Legend! 

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Brownie Mary

25 years later, California’s medical marijuana vote still feels revolutionary




The passage of California’s Proposition 215 a quarter-century ago—on Nov. 5, 1996—was nothing less than a seismic event.

Today, as the cannabis community prepares to gather in San Francisco to celebrate the silver anniversary of the first-ever statewide medical cannabis law, we live in an entirely different world—particularly those of us living in places that have more or less followed California’s lead.

Thirty-six additional states now legally sanction some form of medical cannabis. Eighteen states and Washington, DC, have legalized the adult use of cannabis entirely. And while the federal government continues to classify cannabis alongside heroin as a Schedule I narcotic, with the highest potential for abuse and no approved medical use, the days of DEA raids on state-licensed cannabis dispensaries seem to be behind us. 

What’s normal today was radical in 1996

One measure of the incredible success of Proposition 215 is that we have begun to take all of the above for granted. But back in 1996, simply protecting AIDS and cancer patients from arrest for growing a plant or smoking a joint that their doctor recommended was a truly radical change. It struck at the heart of a racist and oppressive status quo that at the time appeared nearly unassailable—even to some of the renegades who risked everything to take on the system, and often suffered the consequences.

The history of America’s medical cannabis movement includes a lot of such martyr stories, because despite what you might hear at the next big cannabis business conference, our rights were not secured by the investor class looking to cash in or the political class bending to the will of the electorate.

Safe access to medical cannabis became law in California due to the struggle and sacrifice of a grassroots movement of patients, advocates, and agitators engaged in a sustained campaign of civil disobedience.


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Celebrating where it started: San Francisco

On Friday, California NORML will host a conference and afterparty in San Francisco to commemorate the groundbreaking law’s big anniversary.

The celebration features “original sponsors, organizers, medical patients, attorneys and advocates of the Prop. 215 campaign, plus memorials to those who have since passed away and to patients, doctors and caregivers who have been arrested, harassed or imprisoned in the fight for their right to medical marijuana.”

Highlights include a reunion of some of Proposition 215’s co-authors, with California NORML director Dale Gieringer, registered nurse and patient advocate Anna Boyce, and WAMM co-founder Valerie Corral all on hand to share their recollections of drafting the ballot initiative and campaigning for its passage alongside fellow co-authors Dennis Peron, John Entwistle, Jr., William Panzer, Scott Tracy Imler, Leo Paoli  and Dr. Tod H. Mikuriya.

The instigators: Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary

It takes many people to make up a movement, but the story of Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary will always be this movement’s starting place. They led a movement that grew out of the desperate need for medical access among San Francisco’s LGBTQ community. And that movement forever changed the way the city, the state, and ultimately the world views cannabis.


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Peron discovered cannabis during the war

For Dennis Peron, it all started with his deployment to Vietnam in 1967, where he was pleasantly surprised to find Saigon filled with the sweet smell of weed smoke. A closeted homosexual and a committed pacifist, he worked in the morgue, stacking bodies. Cannabis would prove to be the saving grace of a horrific situation.

When he was discharged in December 1969, he stuffed two pounds of the highest grade cannabis he could find in Vietnam into his Air Force duffel bag and smuggled it to San Francisco. By 1974, he’d parlayed those two pounds into a thriving underground empire that included The Island, a vegetarian health-food restaurant where each patron was greeted with a joint prior to sitting down to eat.

An early advocate for gay rights

Peron was also heavily involved in San Francisco’s push for gay rights, including Harvey Milk’s successful run for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In July 1977, however, just months before that historic election, the San Francisco Narcotics Squad raided Peron’s operation. During the raid, he was shot in the leg, shattering his femur. He also faced serious prison time over the 200 pounds of cannabis seized.

But after the horrors of Vietnam, Peron always claimed the police couldn’t scare him. In fact, he continued to sell cannabis from his bedside while recovering at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

During a break in the ensuing trial, the officer who’d shot him blurted out a string of anti-gay slurs, and said he’d wished he’d shot him dead. As a result, the officer’s testimony was thrown out of court and the charges were lowered.

Planning a campaign while in jail

Still, Peron spent seven months in prison. While incarcerated, he began planning a local ballot initiative to stop San Francisco authorities from arresting and prosecuting people who “cultivate, transfer or possess marijuana.” It would pass by a wide margin.

San Francisco Mayor George Moscone subsequently instructed the city’s police force to ignore minor cannabis offenses. But then on Nov. 27, 1978, Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were assassinated by a homophobic ex-police officer, and the SFPD went back to business as usual.

Elsewhere in the city, Mary Rathbun found her calling

Mary Jane Rathbun was a self-described anarchist whose vocal advocacy for workers’ rights, reproductive rights, and other social justice causes estranged her from her parents and family in Wisconsin. After moving to San Francisco, she married a recently-returned World War II veteran, but the marriage ended in divorce, leaving her to raise their child alone on an IHOP waitress’s earnings.

When her daughter later died in an automobile accident at just 22 years old, Rathburn was bereft, without any surviving family to call her own and often struggling to make ends meet.

Then one fateful day in the late 1970s, she perfected the recipe for some “magically delicious” cannabis infused brownies. Those brownies would make her locally famous in the Castro—San Francisco’s predominantly gay neighborhood—and then turn her into an international cannabis cause celebre.

A brownie becomes a business

Before long, business was booming, with Mary baking several dozen brownies every day to keep up with demand.  A grandmotherly figure with curly gray hair, a kind-hearted disposition, and a sailor’s vocabulary, she became a beloved figure in the Castro, serving as a kind of mother figure to countless young people who’d left their families behind in pursuit of a community that accepted them.

Rest assured: Mary most definitely got high on her own supply. Typically she’d eat half a brownie in the morning and then finish the rest in the afternoon. Otherwise, she couldn’t get around too well on her artificial knees, which she earned through a lifetime of standing on hard floors as a waitress.


Meet Mary Jane Rathbun, mother of the pot brownie

1980s: A deadly plague hits San Francisco

As the AIDS crisis took hold and devastated San Francisco in the early 1980s, Mary Jane Rathburn noticed that the then little-understood virus vastly disproportionately affected the young gay men she’d taken to thinking of as her children. She also observed that cannabis proved incredibly effective in combating their symptoms and restoring their appetites.

So she began volunteering as a nurse’s assistant.

While making the rounds in local AIDS and cancer wards, she made her brownies available to patients for free. At first she dipped into her Social Security checks to cover the cost, but as word spread of “Brownie Mary’s” kindness and compassion, she began to get donations from altruistic local weed growers.

Meanwhile, across town, Dennis Peron tirelessly advocated for medical cannabis as a compassionate, palliative response to the crisis. He also worked to supply AIDS patients with cannabis directly, in defiance of the law.

If you got a warrant I guess you’re gonna come in

In 1981, the SFPD raided Rathbun’s apartment in a public housing project for senior citizens. The raid yielded 18 pounds of pot, and led to a court date for the 57-year-old edibles impresario.

The case also made national headlines. That spread the message that cannabis was an effective medicine for AIDS and cancer patients, while Rathbun herself presented a sympathetic character and case in the media.

Sentenced to 500 hours of community service, Rathburn volunteered at Ward 86 of San Francisco General Hospital, where doctors, nurses, and staff greeted her with admiration and respect, after seeing firsthand how her brownies brought nausea relief, pain relief, and restored quality of life to countless AIDS patients.

‘I’m going to ask for my marijuana back.’

A year after getting busted, the now notorious “Brownie Mary” got busted again. This time the District Attorney dropped the charges. Not that it satisfied Rathburn.

“I’m not a criminal. I did nothing wrong. I was helping my kids,” she said. “They can’t drop the charges without saying I haven’t done anything wrong. And if they do that, I’m going to ask for my marijuana back.”

In 1986, San Francisco General hospital named her Volunteer of the Year—but that didn’t stop her from getting arrested for a third time a few years later.

Charged with possession of 2.5 pounds of cannabis, she made bail the same day thanks to Dennis Peron, who made sure she emerged from custody to a phalanx of supporters, plus a scrum of reporters and TV cameras.

“If the narcs think I’m going to stop baking pot brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go fuck themselves in Macy’s window,” she announced to deafening applause.

1990 arrest leads to the first dispensary in America

In 1990, the narcs came again for Dennis Peron. This time ten officers armed with sledgehammers performed a no-knock raid on his home in the Castro. As they searched his apartment for drugs, Peron tried to protect his longterm partner, Jonathan West, who was gravely ill with AIDS. After the raid recovered only four ounces of cannabis, one of the officers put his boot on West’s neck and taunted him with anti-gay jokes. Then they hauled Peron off to booking, leaving his bedridden partner alone and terrified.

West lived just long enough to testify at Peron’s trial. Frail and in obvious physical agony, his story moved the judge to throw out the case and admonish the arresting officers.

Peron seized the moment by co-founding by co-founding (with husband and fellow activist John Entwistle) the San Francisco Cannabis Buyer’s Club. Although he still risked arrest and prosecution, this time he had the tacit approval of City Hall to run a non-profit collective dedicated to supplying cannabis to the seriously ill for free or at a steep discount. The menu featured a wide selection of organic cannabis, plus edibles, tinctures, topicals and health food. In addition to the retail counter, there were plenty of places to make yourself comfortable and share some cannabis with friends or friendly strangers.

A campaign born out of the club

The San Francisco Buyer’s Club also served as a hub for the ascending cannabis movement’s political campaigns. The earliest efforts to draft what became Prop 215 all happened at the Buyers Club, where Peron brought together medical cannabis patients and providers with academics, politicos, and activists eager to join forces on the historic effort.

Here’s how journalist Fred Gardner, who has served as chronicler of the movement, described the political coalition that Peron brought together for Sunday meetings at the first ever dispensary:

            Among those who came were Dale Gieringer, the head of California NORML. Valerie and Mike Corral came up from Santa Cruz. She has epilepsy, the result of an accident suffered in the ’70s; Mike had become a grower to develop strains that worked best for her. There was Jack Herer, author of “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” who had been organizing for legalization since the early ’70s from his home base in Fresno… Pebbles Trippet, a migraine sufferer who’d been arrested often over the years for marijuana possession and transportation… Bill Panzer and Rob Raich, lawyers from the East Bay… Bob Basker, a union man and longtime ally of Dennis’s, and John Entwistle, a closest political confidante… Historian/activist Michael Aldrich and activist Michelle Aldrich… Community organizer Gilbert Baker. Writers Ed Rosenthal, Ellen Komp, and Chris Conrad. Mary Pat and Monty Jacobs Judy and Lyn Osburne, Lynnette Shaw, Dave Bowman, Vic Hernandez… At some meetings, Dennis estimated, there were “almost 100 people.”

Mary Jane Rathbun also played a major role in the campaign to pass Prop 215, despite growing seriously ill in the run up to the election.

“I think I might live to see it, I really do,” she told the New York Times, adding that if California did approve Prop 215, then Governor Pete Wilson, who’d vetoed similar proposals by the Legislature, would “wet his pants, he really will.”

Many hands built a coalition

As time has passed, Denis Peron and Brownie Mary Rathbun have become legends in San Francisco, in California, and among cannabis legalization advocates worldwide.

But as we tell and retell their stories, it’s important to stress that many other activists contributed mightily to building the medical cannabis movement and passing Prop 215.

Remember Dr. Tod Mikuriya

Particular attention should go to the late Dr. Tod H. Mikuriya, the only physician to co-author the 1996 initiative. Mikuriya was a tireless public advocate for the therapeutic properties of cannabis who risked his career and medical license to break the barriers of prohibition.

Also, while the ideas, energy, heart and soul of the campaign came from a core team of grassroots activists, it must be noted that the millions in funding required to collect enough signatures to get the proposition on the ballot and then run a statewide campaign against stiff opposition came largely from a trio of wealthy donors.

It takes money to run a campaign

George Soros, Peter Lewis, John Sperling, Richard Dennis, and George Zimmer all helped bankroll the Proposition 215 campaign, coming in late to assure it made the ballot and then bringing in a campaign team to help promote it.

A dramatic and thuggish miscalculation on the part of the opposition also helped aid the passage of Prop 215.

Just months before voters decided on the issue, one hundred heavily armed police officers raided the San Francisco Buyer’s Club, busting open the front door with a battering ram, in a transparent attempt to intimidate the initiative’s backers and swing the vote against Prop 215.

But the authorities’ oppressive action backfired, pushing many previously undecided voters to support medical cannabis.

Both Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathbun indeed lived to see the day. Prop 215 passed statewide on Nov. 5, 1996, with 56% approval—a huge margin considering that neither the Democratic nor Republican party were willing to endorse it.

Arizona voters also approved a medical marijuana legalization measure in that same election. But the Arizona Legislature quickly nullified the initiative, leaving California to go it alone. It wasn’t easy. The Clinton administration fought medical legalization for years, using the power of federal arrest and prosecution in an attempt to stop, or at least slow, the progress started by Peron, Rathbun, and the voters of California.

For more than a decade, the glaring discrepancy between state and federal law would result in people and collectives operating as authorized by state law getting raided, arrested and imprisoned by federal law enforcement.

Full adult-use legalization would not arrive until 20 years later, with the passage of Prop 64 in the Nov. 2016 election. But ultimately, Prop 215’s significance went far beyond California. It not only freed the state’s patients to find relief without fear of arrest—it sent shockwaves around the world that still reverberate today.

David Bienenstock's Bio Image

David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of “How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High” (2016 – Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast “Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean.” Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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