While the legal situation around cannabis in the US differs greatly from that in the UK, one key similarity binds the two nations: in both countries, women have provided the driving force for change, spearheading the campaigns to end prohibition and open up access to medical cannabis. The process first gathered pace during the 1980s and 1990s in California, where a number of inspirational women took on the authorities and won, thanks to a combination of bravery, moral conviction and charisma. In Britain, the fight didn’t get started in earnest until decades later, although history appears to be repeating itself in the form of several woman-led campaigns to transform the country’s cannabis policy.
Mary Jane Rathbun. A.K.A Brownie Mary – The Grandmother Of Cannabis Policy Reform In The US
Weed brownies may be on sale at every dispensary in the US these days, but it was a woman by the name of Mary Jane Rathbun who first popularised the chocolatey, cannabinoid-laced goodies. Already in her fifties and having recently lost her only daughter in a traffic accident, Rathbun began selling weed brownies in San Francisco’s Castro neighbourhood during the 1970s, when cannabis was highly illegal.
By the early 80s, the AIDS epidemic was wreaking havoc among the local gay community – and while doctors struggled to find a way to stave off the wasting syndrome that often accompanied the illness, Rathbun’s brownies helped to stimulate appetites and keep immune systems ticking over. Her grandmotherly appearance and compassionate nature helped to win over the public after her first arrest in 1981, at which point the media began to refer to her as Brownie Mary.
It was around this time that she stopped selling brownies and began giving them away for free to those in need, using her social security cheques to buy baking ingredients while local dealers donated weed for her medicinal bakery. It’s thought that she distributed around 1,500 brownies a month throughout the latter half of the 1980s, and in so doing helped to prolong the lives of hundreds of AIDS sufferers.
Brownie Mary went on to play an integral role in the creation of Proposition P, which made it the official policy of San Francisco to support medical cannabis, and received a majority backing in a city-wide vote in 1991.
After being busted again the following year, Rathbun not only won her case by arguing that her actions were a medical necessity, but convinced the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to make prosecuting medical cannabis use their lowest priority. The Board even designated August 25 as Brownie Mary Day.
As if that weren’t enough, Rathbun also helped to established the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club – which became the first medical dispensary in the US in 1992 – and went on to campaign for California Proposition 215, which gave people the right to cultivate and possess medical cannabis, as long as they had permission from a doctor.
Brownie May died in April 1999 having blown down the walls of prohibition and paved the way for cannabis policy reform around the world.
Valerie Corral – A US Cannabis Policy Pioneer
After a light aircraft knocked her car off the road in 1972, Valerie Corral was left with severe neurological symptoms, experiencing up to five seizures a day. She soon became addicted to pharmaceuticals, and appeared to be staring down the barrel of a life of suffering. However, after managing to completely control her seizures using cannabis, she was able to ditch the drugs and begin a whole new chapter.
For almost two decades, she and her husband Mike quietly grew their own cannabis, allowing Valerie to remain symptom-free while also supplying some of their personal friends. Yet after being busted by the police in 1992, Corral was thrust onto the front line of the fight for medical cannabis policy reform in the US.
She became the first medical cannabis patient to challenge the illegality of the plant based on medical necessity, and managed to win her case. This led Valerie and Mike to establish the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), which soon became the first legally recognised non-profit medical cannabis organisation in the US.
Now called WAMM Phytotherapies, the organisation continues to provide medical cannabis and other plant medicines to its members, who suffer from a wide range of medical conditions. For those who can’t afford it, cannabis is offered at cost or free of charge, while volunteers are able to work in exchange for their weed. Corral’s caring nature has made the organisation famous around the world, and she is believed to have been present at the passing of every single member to have died since WAMM first began.
One of the most influential figures in the creation of California Proposition 215, Corral continues to advise city councils across the state on how to legally implement the bill, which received a majority vote back in 1996.
While the Proposition technically decriminalised medical cannabis at the state level, its continued illegality at the federal level has made the situation rather complicated. For this reason, the city of Santa Cruz deputized Valerie and Mike Corral to act as medical cannabis providers, thereby endowing WAMM with an extra layer of legal protection and legitimacy.
In spite of this, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) raided the property once again in 2002, confiscating much of the cannabis that was being grown on site. Following a lengthy legal battle, the Corrals crushed the prosecution, with a judge ruling that a federal ban on medical cannabis shouldn’t prevent states from implementing their own policies. Crucially, therefore, the case helped to break the deadlock between state governments and the federal government regarding cannabis policy reform.
Hannah Deacon – Driving Cannabis Policy Reform In The UK
It’s fair to say that the story of cannabis policy reform in Britain has been somewhat less dramatic than in the US, although the last few years have seen some major movement. Much of this is down to the actions of Hannah Deacon, whose son Alfie suffers from a rare and severe form of epilepsy. After pharmaceutical drugs failed to bring about a reduction in Alfie’s seizures, Deacon began reading about the potential of cannabis to treat epilepsy, and relocated her family to the Netherlands in 2017 in order to access cannabis-based medications.
Deacon describes what happened next as “a miracle”, as Alfie went several weeks without a single seizure. However, after financial difficulties forced the family to return to the UK – where medical cannabis was still illegal – Deacon embarked on a tireless campaign to bring about cannabis policy change.
She currently leads the End Our Pain campaign group, which publicly fights for the right of parents to use cannabis to treat epileptic children. Her actions have been instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion, and ultimately led to Alfie receiving the first ever National Health Service (NHS) prescription for medical cannabis in 2018.
After teaming up with neurologist Mike Barnes and meeting with the Prime Minister, Deacon played a significant role in pressuring the government to change the law around medical cannabis, allowing doctors to prescribe it to other patients in need.
However, while it is now legal to do so in the UK, the majority of physician remain reluctant to prescribe medical cannabis, largely due to confusing regulations that generally advise against its use. As such, hardly any other patients have received a prescription, which is why Deacon continues to campaign for change.
Carly Barton – A Cannabis Policy Reform Visionary
After suffering a stroke at the age of 24, Carly Barton was left with debilitating nerve pain and fibromyalgia, all of which rendered her bed-ridden and detracted greatly from her quality of life. Fortunately, medical cannabis proved to be her saviour, enabling her to end her dependence on painkillers and start living a full and happy life once again.
However, patients like Barton currently don’t have the right to grow their own supply, which is why she has taken it upon herself to change the system. After having her plants confiscated by police officers – one of whom actually broke down in tears at the thought of taking away her medicine – Barton appeared before an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drug Policy Reform, arguing the case for patients with certain conditions to be allowed to grow their own medical cannabis.
She went on to establish an initiative called Carly’s Amnesty, which has received public backing from a number of politicians and law enforcement officials. In November 2020, she launched a nationwide cannabis card scheme in collaboration with police forces around the country. Under the initiative, officers are advised not to confiscate the cannabis plants of anyone who possesses a card, thereby providing legal framework for homegrown medical cannabis in the UK.