Dennis Peron and Mary Rathbun:
Godparents of Medical Marijuana
“I've been involved with marijuana reform for over 23 years, but it wasn't until 1989, when my lover got AIDS, that I recognized what a beneficial herb it is.”
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana for medical use comprise a diverse group that includes U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, conservative William F. Buckley, and television’s Dr. Dean Edell.
“Most of us in the medical profession believe marijuana as medicine works,” Edell is on record as saying. But despite evidence showing the marijuana relieves a variety of medical ills such as glaucoma, nausea, and pain, marijuana is listed as a “Class I” schedule drug - a dangerous substance with no known medical value.
Dennis Peron and Mary Rathbun are two nationally known figures in the medical marijuana movement who are trying to change that classification. Peron is the director of Americans for Compassionate Use and Rathbun is better known by her other name: Brownie Mary.
“I’ve been involved with marijuana reform for over 23 years; but it wasn’t until 1989, when my lover John got AIDS, that I recognized what a beneficial herb it is,” Peron said.
Jonathan West, Peron’s partner for 14 years, had a variety of AIDS-related illnesses, including Kaposi’s sarcoma, pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, and wasting syndrome.
“At one point, doctors gave him three or four months to live; but, he lived two years after that. I believe it was marijuana helping him fight off the wasting, fight off nausea, and fight off depression. When he died, as a eulogy to him, I collected 16,000 signatures to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot in San Francisco.”
The 1990 initiative, known as “Proposition P” passed with 80 percent of the vote despite a strong campaign by conservatives and the Christian right. The initiative calls on both the California State Legislature and Medical Association to reschedule marijuana as a “Class II” drug so that it can be prescribed for illnesses, including AIDS and cancer.
Then, in 1992, Peron opened The Cannabis Buyers Club.
“For all those who are suffering like my Jonathan, I have been on a campaign to legalize marijuana as medicine for people with HIV and cancer, and to that purpose, that is what we have here,” he said with a sweep of his hand. “The buyer’s club.”
While a marijuana buyers club is not unique to San Francisco - there are a handful of them around the country, including D.C. - it is doubtful that any operate with the style or openness of San Francisco’s.
This is no back alley operation. The buyers club is open three days a week and is located in a large, loft-like space near the Castro. Comfortably decorated with overstuffed chairs and couches, it features a large screen color TV and ceiling mounted speakers for the stereo system.
Approximately 30 people are seated in several conversation groups around the room. Another half dozen or so are lined up at a counter where the marijuana is weighed and sold. A bulletin board lists the quality and cost of the currently available stock.
Prime Northern California marijuana tops the list with an “A+” rating and is priced at $70 for a half-ounce or $20 a gram. The leaf or “shake” from the same crop goes for $10 a gram. Unrated, at the bottom of the list, is Mexican marijuana selling for $5 a gram.
Several marijuana cigarettes and “bongs” are being passed around the room and there is a continual flow of traffic in and out. It’s all done so openly, Peron was asked, “How can this exist, even in progressive San Francisco?”
“It seems like this is above ground, but what we are doing here is totally illegal,” he replied. “The people who come here are referred to us by doctors, oncologists, Project Inform, and ACT-UP.”
The Cannabis Buyers Club is open only to those who fill out a membership application and provide a doctor’s certified diagnosis of AIDS or cancer. A membership card is issued which must be shown to the guard at the door before gaining entry.
“By filling out the form, members are making a commitment to being a co-partner in this,” Peron said. “They are also acknowledging that the police will have their names if it ever comes to that. The forms don’t provide them or us with any legal protection, except Proposition P and Resolution 741-92 which tell the police that their lowest priority is marijuana for medical purposes.”
Once a week, Dr. Tod Mikuriya sets up an office in the back room of the buyers club and talks with members about various ailments. Mikuriya, former head of marijuana research at the National Institutes of Health, is conducting a study of medical marijuana.
“What amazed me is the diversity of reasons why patients use marijuana,” he said. “The largest category is for relief of nausea and loss of appetite. I had thought of it as a mild tranquilizer, but I was surprised by its use as a anti-depressant. And another area that marijuana may turn out to be quite valuable is when the auto immune system begins to turn on itself.”
Though she’s no medical doctor, Mary Rathbun has been “prescribing” marijuana to people with AIDS in San Francisco since the inception of the epidemic. She looks grandmotherly with her gray hair and glasses; but at age 70, she is anything but the typical septuagenarian. For several years, Rathbun sold marijuana and continues to smoke it to this day.
“I nick-named myself ‘Brownie Mary’ when I first started in the business years ago,” she said. “I’ve been living in the so-called ‘Gay zip-code’ for years, and 60 to 70 percent of my customers were Gay kids when I had the cottage industry going. Then, when I got busted in 1981, the name really stuck.”
Legend has it that Mary delivered marijuana laced brownies to patients at San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward. However, while she has been a volunteer there for over 10 years, she says she never took marijuana to the hospital. It was her “kids” at Shanti House that got the brownies.
“When the AIDS epidemic first broke, I joined Shanti [AIDS Project] as a volunteer in their first practical support training group. I cooked dinner in the first Shanti House for people with AIDS. I always took my kids brownies and, if I didn’t have brownies, I took them some good marijuana. In those days, the kids could smoke marijuana in their rooms, but Shanti knocked that off when they got federal funding; but I used to sneak it in anyway. Fuck the administrators, those kids were entitled to it.”
Rathbun was busted a total of three times for possession of marijuana. Her most recent arrest in 1992 became a national news item.
“I just happened to be at my supplier’s house up North when he got busted behind a snitch. On the day the police came by to get him, they got me too. They thought they got two for the price of one, but it backfired on them. It was the shot heard around the world for medical marijuana. I was baking strictly for my kids and would have gone to jail for my cause.”
But she didn’t go to jail. The prosecutor’s office was flooded with letters and phone calls protesting Rathbun’s arrest. Following a hearing, the charges against her were dropped, and August 25, 1992, was officially proclaimed ‘Brownie Mary Day’ in San Francisco.
She still spends her days volunteering or looking in on friends with AIDS, and she still makes brownies, the recipe for which can be found in the second edition of her new cookbook: “Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook.” On Fridays, she can be found at the buyers club passing out her famous brownies to those who look the sickest.
“Eat this when you have nothing else to do,” she advised one young man whose face is covered with what appears to be Kaposi’s sarcoma. That would appear to be good advice. Her brownies are packed with, “five ounces of high-grade marijuana,” she says.
“I was 13 when the laws against marijuana were passed, and I thought it was just horse shit then,” she said. “I believe in the legalization of all drugs; that would totally end our problem. Prohibition has never worked.”
Though there have been a growing number of voices calling for the legalization of marijuana, if not all drugs, such a sweeping measure seems unlikely in the near future. Still, the medical marijuana movement people expect the decriminalization of marijuana at the very least.
“I think marijuana will be legal first for medical patients, especially for AIDS patients,” Peron said. “The AIDS epidemic has caused us to rethink everything about sex and drugs. Recreational use of marijuana is going to have to take a back seat to the medical use. We have a medical emergency in this country and we have a drug that helps.”
Photos of Dennis Peron and Mary Rathbun ©Rick Gerharter