Tony Engle(left) with hemp seed producer GeneSeed in Tennessee and hemp farmer David Singletary examine plant growth at Singletary's farm in Florence, Tuesday, August 3, 2021. Hemp contains cannabidiol (CBD), which does not produce the high associated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), in its cousin marijuana. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As lawmakers haggle over a medical marijuana program to replace one passed by voters but shot down by the Mississippi Supreme Court, state Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson says because marijuana is still federally illegal, he doesn’t want to help oversee any program.

“All of us elected officials took an oath of office to ‘faithfully support the Constitution of the United States … and obey the laws thereof,'” Gipson wrote in a letter to Attorney General Lynn Fitch copied to lawmakers. “… please explain how this office or the Department (of Agriculture) could legally license the growing and/or processing of a marijuana crop in violation of federal law.”

Lawmakers proposed legislation this year, and are considering measures now, that would have Gipson’s agency license and regulate marijuana growers and processors. Initiative 65, passed by voters in November, would have had the state Health Department oversee the entire program, although it could have brought other agencies in to help. The state Board of Health had opposed the Health Department being put in charge of the program, and opposed Initiative 65 as well.

Gipson, in a Supertalk radio interview on Friday, said he does not see how his office could participate in a program that is still federally illegal. He said he already has a legal challenge drafted if lawmakers approve such a measure.

READ MORE: Lawmakers ‘very, very close’ to medical marijuana deal

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, who’s leading Senate negotiations on a medical marijuana program, on Friday said he had not spoken with Gipson, but noted that many of the 38 states with medical marijuana programs have their agriculture agencies providing oversight.

In his letter to the attorney general, Gipson said: “If the Mississippi Legislature were to enact and the governor were to sign into state law a medical marijuana program, how would it be legal under the federal act to truck, ship, deliver, manufacture, distribute or dispense any part of the cannabis seed or plant as a Schedule 1 substance into the state of Mississippi?”

While marijuana remains federally illegal, federal authorities have looked the other way as many states have legalized medical or recreational use. Congress has failed to act on the issue. This has caused problems with banking and finances for the industry and with interstate commerce.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.