Colorado on Thursday became the first state in the nation to begin issuing licenses for businesses that sell medical marijuana and marijuana-infused products, in a move that could put them at odds with the federal government.

Just 11 medical marijuana purveyors have received licenses so far, according to The Denver Post. Seven more are "likely to receive licenses," the paper added.

The state's licensing of medical marijuana is a symbolic victory for drug reformers in Colorado in that now the state and local municipalities are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their businesses. The federal government has, of late, been cracking down on medical marijuana businesses around the country, and several enforcement actions led by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have given rise to speculation that the whole industry is at risk.

It is not clear if the federal government will target Colorado state employees over the move, as they threatened to when Washington state's governor asked for a Department of Justice (DOJ) advisory on how to implement that state's voter-approved medical marijuana initiative.

“The prosecution of individuals and organizations involved in the trade of any illegal drugs and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations is a core priority of the Department,” the DOJ replied. “This core priority includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana.”

Following that letter, several states governors' said they were hesitant to implement medical marijuana licensing plans. Jan Brewer, governor of Arizona (R), even filed a lawsuit in an effort to block her state's law from taking effect. But in a strangely contradictory opinion, a legal brief filed by the DOJ in response to Brewer's lawsuit said that state employees would not be placed under threat of prosecution if they license medical marijuana businesses.

So why the conflicting positions from the federal government? It's actually not clear, and the Obama administration seems to have taken several contradictory stands on medical marijuana. One one hand, Obama's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) insists that marijuana has no medical value, but the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) said earlier this year that parts of the marijuana plant may have "some" medical value.

The DOJ has also said it would not be a good use of department resources to arrest medical marijuana users, or legally-operating dispensaries in states that have approved the drug for medical use. But over the last year the administration has largely reversed this position, going after dispensaries in a number of states.

Colorado becoming the first state to officially license businesses to sell medical marijuana is significant for more than just the obvious reasons. If the Obama administration decides to come down on them, the state could ultimately become a massive test case on states' rights versus federal law as either pertain to the right to use medical marijuana.

Photo: Flickr user miggslives.