'Home Baked' is a Potent Read About SF's Underground Cannabis History

In 'Home Baked,' Alia Volz gives an inside account of her mom's successful edibles business and the ways cannabis and HIV/AIDS activism shaped California.  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Roberto Valdivia/ Unsplash)

Harvey Milk quit the chronic when he got serious about politics, but his right-hand activist wrangler Cleve Jones continued as an occasional cannabis brownie consumer, scoring directly from the counter of his unofficial office at the Castro’s Village Deli. We know this because the daughter of his deli’s pastry dealer wrote a book: Alia Volz’s Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco.

Canna-history buffs will thrill to Volz’s retelling of wonky marijuana industry secrets, but ultimately she wrote Home Baked because of all you can divine about a society’s inner workings via its drug of choice. The early ’70s to late ’90s was a key period in San Francisco’s counterculture history, and had lasting effects on the state’s economy and public policy. That story is traceable through its green veins in Home Baked’s insider account.

The 1970s Sticky Fingers sales team poses for a shot before heading out to vend their brownies by the dozen to local counterculture businesses. (Courtesy of Alia Volz)

Volz conducted around 55 interviews over the course of hundreds of hours throughout the research process, most of them co-workers and clients of the book’s protagonist, Meridy Volz a.k.a. the Brownie Lady, co-creator of iconic S.F. edibles brand Sticky Fingers Brownies. Some big names show up on this list, including Jones, whose interviews with Volz provide incisive commentary on the era’s potent queer activism.

Though tumultuous family history often takes the foreground in Home Baked, Alia knew all along that what she really wanted to share was the story of how their popular pot brownies were linked with the jubilation of the 1970s gay liberation movement and the harsh comedown the city experienced after the Jonestown tragedy, assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone, and eventual decent into HIV/AIDS. Throughout, cannabis powered the era’s artists and activists, and provided comfort during its horrific plague.

“I really wanted to tell the story of the community,” Volz said in an interview with KQED. “I eventually realized that in order to tell the social history that I wanted to tell, I had to smuggle it within a personal narrative. People really need that first person guide into the world to hold it together.”

Sticky Fingers Brownies' 1977 logo by Alia Volz' father, Doug Volz, featuring the Brownie Lady herself became a recognizable piece of stoner art to San Francisco residents in the know. (Courtesy of Alia Volz)

The book’s narrative is studded with historical asides, and Volz’s engaging voice and insight on Sticky Fingers’ modus operandi makes it a quick read. The brand largely operated via vending bulk orders to counterculture businesses that would later resell the treats. A particularly detailed account of Meridy’s 1970s Castro sales route reads like a who’s who of local enterprise at the time, beginning at a variety and antique store called Hot Flash of America and proceeding to Café Flore, Finnila’s Finnish Baths, the Castro Theatre, Village Deli, the porn offices of Falcon Studios, a restaurant called Neon Chicken and Double Rainbow Ice Cream.

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Meridy’s day at the office ends with a stopover at the costume-strewn Castro Street apartment of her decade-long regular, the disco star Sylvester. Readers also become privy to the Brownie Lady’s five-step sales technique (step one: “Case the joint”. Step two: “Pop the question. ‘Do you like brownies?’ Waggle an eyebrow so they know you’re not talking about Sara Lee.”)
Of course, Home Baked is not the first published account of San Francisco’s cannabis activism, which the book follows closely as it dovetails with the movement of people living with HIV/AIDS who used the drug to cope with taxing symptoms, and furiously protested their lack of treatment options.

Activists Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary have also published books on the groundbreaking advocacy work that eventually led to the statewide legalization of medical marijuana in 1996. But those two were public figures who were often arrested. In contrast, the Sticky Fingers crew made a very decent living off their work and managed to keep a low profile throughout decades of sales. Home Baked tells business secrets that could never have been shared in real time.

Underground credentials and all, it is essential to acknowledge that Home Baked is not San Francisco’s definitive cannabis history, but one of many. While Sticky Fingers’ white cohort got through decades of lugging duffel bags of cannabis pastries down San Francisco’s major thoroughfares scot-free, there is little mention of the fact that black and Latino residents of neighborhoods such as Bayview and West Oakland saw cannabis regularly used as the pretext for police searches throughout Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and beyond. And when white cannabis movers like Brownie Mary were charged, their sentences were often much lighter than those of their non-white counterparts.

Illustration of Mick Jagger with the words "Sticky Fingers Brownies"
"The weed would carry the word," writes Volz of her father Doug's iconic Sticky Fingers bag designs, which oftentimes expressed cryptic messages to customers relating to counterculture heroes and the city's current events. (Courtesy of Alia Volz)

“There's certainly racial privilege involved in the fact that my mom never got busted,” Volz says. She calls the era’s cannabis and HIV/AIDS activists “a politically savvy group that was accustomed to fighting for their rights and had some resources to begin with.” Even as Home Baked brings to light one marijuana history, it points to the need to for many more. In the meantime, the book does put the post-legalization (in many places) hyper-capitalism of marijuana—not to mention a government’s inaction in the face of a pandemic—into context.

“In truth, we owe our lavender-scented THC bath salts to activists who fought for access during the AIDS crisis,” writes Volz in the book, later continuing, “I’m glad things have changed, but the collective amnesia disturbs me.”

This 4/20 might be a good time to reflect on the potency of our own anger and action. And hey, eat an edible while we’re at it.

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Thanks to San Francisco Remembered and the Last Prisoner Project for their help in gathering information on Bay Area experiences with cannabis policing during the ’70s and ’80s.