This article is an entry from our first Young Adult Writers competition, where unpublished writers aged 18-25 were invited to submit an article on a subject suitable for leafie. As a competition entry, it has been unedited except for any spelling or typing errors.
Weed brownies, whether tucked in a cupboard, out on the side or even – as is becoming more common – out on a shelf, available for purchase, are the most prevalent marijuana-based edible good around. The rich chocolate flavour, along with the dense, often fudgy texture of brownies, helps to mask the taste of cannabis. However, there’s also another angle to consider. Like spiked punch at prom or teenagers on park swings late at night, it’s a fun twist on a seemingly wholesome activity. It’s only fitting, then, that the history of the weed brownie is surprising and subversive, covering everything from the Parisian avant-garde to activism throughout its journey to its current form.
Alice B. Toklas is often credited with the invention of the pot brownie. Toklas, a writer and the partner of Gertrude Stein, was a member of the early twentieth century Parisian avant-garde, hosting Hemingway, Matisse and Sherwood Anderson to name a few. After Stein’s death, she willed much of her estate to Toklas. As their relationship had no legal recognition, Stein’s relatives were able to claim much of the estate – including their shared art collection – leaving Toklas destitute. The 1954 release of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook was a method of raising income.
The most popular recipe, however, didn’t originate from Toklas herself. Author Brion Gysin allegedly gave Toklas the recipe for “Haschich Fudge” as a result of his travels in Morocco, likely inspired by majoun. Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis, has said: “Her friend Brion said he did it because he knew she was broke; she had hepatitis and she needed money, and he wanted to make her cookbook really popular.” Majoun is a fudgy kind of cake-ball originally created by the nomadic Berber tribes, who eventually concentrated in the area we now consider Morocco. The traditional recipe requires cannabis extract, along with datura seeds. These seeds can sprout into jimson weed, an intense hallucinogen.
Toklas’ recipe actually contains no hash or chocolate but includes dates, figs, coriander and black pepper. She also doesn’t call for heating the ingredients – which many believe activates the THC in marijuana. Nor, in fact, is it even described as a brownie. Instead, the 1968 movie I Love You Alice B. Toklas erroneously credits Toklas with the recipe for the brownies which the main character adores, morphing the already twisted majoun with the pot brownie.
Instead, the aptly named Mary Jane Rathbun (dubbed “Brownie Mary” by those around her) popularised the weed brownie as we know it today – but not for the reasons we might expect. Rathbun was arrested three times due to producing brownies to help those with AIDS. Her grandmotherly appearance inspired public sympathy, with each arrest bringing more positive attention to the cause of medical marijuana. Notably, she was not a grandmother – her only daughter was killed at 22 in a motorcycle accident. San Francisco’s vibrant gay community brought her out of her grief. In the late 1970s, she decided to retire by selling cannabis-based confectionary in San Francisco’s gay Castro district.
After being sentenced to 500 hours of community service following a drug raid, Rathbun began to volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward. Medical staff were still concerned about catching the disease from their patients; Rathbun kept patients company, reading to them and feeding them. Especially when many had become estranged from their parents – as a result of their sexuality or their diagnosis – Rathbun served as a source of comfort. She soon discovered her weed brownies, previously a business venture, served as an additional way to help those suffering: “I make them for the worst of the patients, the ones on chemotherapy and the ones totally wasting away. I pick out the worst of the worst and turn them on,” she once said. One 1993 Chicago Tribune article dubbed Rathbun “San Francisco’s leading angel of mercy, a lady known for a heart of gold”.
There were also potential medical benefits to Brownie Mary’s mission. She saw cannabis as both an appetite stimulant and a solution to pain. “This is a medicine that works,” she explained. “It works for the wasting syndrome–the 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.” Rathbun’s repeated arrests, and their growing publicity, generated interest in the medical community and motivated researchers like Dr Donald Abrams to propose trials to test the veracity of her theories. Abrams has since researched the impact of cannabis for cancer patients.
Rathbun certainly wasn’t alone in her efforts. Meridy Volz was the owner of Sticky Fingers Brownies, also located in the Castro district. At one point, they produced 10,000 brownies a month. Following marijuana busts, Sticky Fingers Brownies closed, giving away their recipe for free on their last bags. After AIDS became widespread, Meridy began supplying patients with brownies, easing the symptoms from impact of the disease and the side effects of AZT, the main drug used to limit the further deterioration of individuals with AIDS. Alia, Volz’ daughter who often used to help her with baking, explained: “Pot brownies weren’t going to save anyone’s life over the long term but it brought them relief, and there wasn’t a lot of relief in those days.”
Following the increasing legalisation of recreational cannabis use across the United States, the market for brownies – and all cannabis-related snacks – has skyrocketed. The global cannabidiol market was valued at $4.6 billion in 2018 and is anticipated to grow significantly, especially given the potential changing classification of cannabis. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has pledged to set up an independent commission to study decriminalisation. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 78% of Australians were in favour of decriminalising cannabis.
Where possible, cannabis confectionary has now been popularised in the mass-market, supplying everything from cookies to gummies to chocolate. This can lead to better portion control – Kiva, a California-based company, has segments which break off and allow customers to control their dosage while CBD gummies carry nutritional information like vitamins – and an assurance of quality-tested product. However, whether corporations will truly be able to do justice to the subversive and surprising history of the humble weed brownie remains to be seen.