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Maysville Mayor Harriet Cartmell Wants Her Town to Go to Pot; Others Want Her to Go—Period

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Marijuana grows wild in the fertile limestone soil of Mason County, Ky., so it was no big deal when a single, tiny specimen of Cannabis sativa popped up last spring in the backyard of Jo Knox’s home in Maysville (pop. 7,600). Knox, 47, the proprietor of a sign-painting shop and a solid citizen, knew the plant was contraband, but she thought it was pretty, so she dug it up, potted it and set it in her window for all the world to see. By August the thing stood three feet tall, and that’s when the case of the potted pot turned messy, pitting neighbor against neighbor and, eventually, the city commission against Maysville’s mince-no-words Mayor, Harriet Cartmell.

The donnybrook began one night when Knox and her live-in business partner, Charles Julian, 31, heard police sirens approaching their home. “We went to see what the commotion was—and it was us,” Jo says. Seems that a neighbor had complained about the brazen display of outlawed flora, and the cops came with search and arrest warrants. “We didn’t have anything to hide,” Jo explains. “We don’t use pot, but I figured they came for the plant, so I said, ‘Take it.’ ” They took it, along with Knox and Julian, who were led off in handcuffs. The charge: marijuana possession, a misdemeanor.

In court last October, Knox admitted the plant was hers and was ordered to spend two days and seven nights in jail. Some folk, who would like Maysville to be known as the hometown of Rosemary Clooney and not of Jo Knox’s plant, hoped the episode would end there. But it didn’t.

Enter Mayor Cartmell, 66, who declared herself outraged that an upstanding citizen like Knox could be hauled off to jail for simply having a plant in her window. Then Cartmell came right out and said it—that marijuana ought to be legalized. Not that the Mayor favors pot smoking—she doesn’t. “But let’s be realistic,” she said. “I also don’t believe people should smoke tobacco, but they do.”

As for marijuana, says Cartmell, it’s “a totally usable plant. It makes a finer cloth than cotton when it’s spun. The oil can be used in engines. You can make burlap sacks, rope, everything with it.” None of these things, she adds, can be said of the other weed. “Tobacco is a dying industry around here,” she says. “And we’ve got marijuana growing all over. We have hungry people who could be put to work spinning marijuana in the old mill.”

Spinning? In the old mill? Not surprisingly, Her Honor’s modest proposal had most of Maysville’s other civic and religious leaders reeling. “I’ve known Harriet 55 years, but she’s wrong,” says George B. Purdon, a city commissioner and toy store owner. “I’ve seen what marijuana can do to people; it changes them.” In the view of the Rev. James Manning, pastor of Calvary Temple Church, the Mayor’s comments “hurt parents, the schools, the youth. I think she should resign.” The local paper called the Mayor’s statements “shameful and embarrassing,” and when a motion for censure was made to the city commission in December, it was passed unanimously, 4 to 0.

Yet apparently Harriet Cartmell remains one of Maysville’s most popular citizens. “How-do, how you doin’, hon?” she greets everyone in her lilting drawl, and invariably they greet her back with a smile. The widow of a physician who died six years ago, and the mother of three grown children, Cartmell, a Democrat, was elected to a four-year term as mayor in 1986. It was the first time she’d been elected to anything, and she was following in the footsteps of her mother, Rebekah Hord, the first woman mayor elected anywhere in Kentucky, who sat in Maysville’s city hall from 1951 to 1960. “I was raised to raise hell,” says Cartmell, who remains unrepentant and unintimidated. “Oh my goodness, they’ll never run me out of office,” she adds with a laugh. “I was asked my opinion and I gave it. I don’t apologize for it, and I’ll certainly never quit over it. They’ve got me for two more years.”