Minnesota House Democrats will fan out to 15 communities across the state to build support for legalizing recreational marijuana, setting up a showdown with the Senate Republicans who remain opposed to changes in the law when the Legislature convenes next year.

The tour, which kicked off Thursday with an announcement at the Minnesota State Fair, comes as DFL Gov. Tim Walz has told state agencies to prepare for the possibility of legal recreational pot. This summer a work group of state agency staff has been studying practices in other states that have legalized recreational marijuana use, such as Oregon and Colorado. They will make recommendations to the governor about how to manage any changes in state law.

"What does it look like from a revenue perspective? What does it look like from a Department of Public Safety [perspective]? What is the Department of Health's responsibility?" Walz said on Thursday. State officials will need to look at how to tax, collect revenue and regulate sales.

But as Minnesota Democrats try to build political momentum and a framework for recreational use, the top Republican in the Legislature has made it clear: Legalization is not happening next year.

"We're discouraging kids from smoking. We're trying to fight the opioid epidemic. And then, at the same time, we want to legalize pot? To me that just doesn't make sense," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.

Recreational use won't occur until "the Democrats get back in charge," said Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, who sponsored a bill earlier this year to legalize recreational marijuana. Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate, while Democrats control the House and governor's office. The 2020 election will be a fight for legislative control.

If Democrats win both chambers, Franzen said legalization will happen quickly — particularly given Walz's efforts to prepare.

Walz said he wanted to have more conversations about the idea during the last legislative session. But Franzen's legalization bill was quickly rejected on a party-line vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.

If Gazelka changes his mind, Walz said he wants state agency staff ready to present plans for a legal transition.

Last week, the chief of staff to former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and a team that launched recreational marijuana regulations there visited Minnesota, Walz said.

More discussion is needed about which state agency has regulatory authority, Franzen said. Her bill last session gave the Health Department that responsibility. Another major question is how to handle banking, she said, because banks have avoided working with the cannabis industry due to conflicts with federal law.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has taken part in the state working group and said one of the questions his department is considering is what to do with people in prison for marijuana offenses. He said that 90 people are in Minnesota prisons in part because of offenses having to do with the drug. Of those, 49 are locked up solely for marijuana offenses.

Those questions have racial implications. State drug penalties have disproportionately affected people of color. Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said at the House event at the fair kicking off their state tour that the state needs equitable regulations.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said community conversations will build consensus around the issue and educate lawmakers on what's myth and fact. In addition to legislators and residents, he said experts like the former Denver district attorney will speak at the gatherings.

Divisions around the legalization issue were apparent Thursday at the fair, where DFL lawmakers were holding a news conference.

Dellwood resident Luke Martone thought the approach Democrats are taking is reasonable and that Minnesota can learn from other states. Maria Wallin, of Brooklyn Park, said she supports medical marijuana but worries about people driving under the influence if recreational use becomes legal. Mark Gustafson, who lives in Minnetonka, sees marijuana as a gateway drug and is adamantly opposed to legalization: "It's absolutely the wrong thing to do."

Many people want full legalization, Gazelka acknowledged, noting that two of the state's four major political parties are the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and Legal Marijuana Now Party. To qualify as major parties, a candidate from each of those groups had to get at least 5% of the vote in the last election.

Gazelka said House Democrats' cannabis tour is partly a way to use the issue to bolster support among those voters in 2020.

"That's why I'm saying, instead of being political on this, why don't we actually make sure we look at all the consequences of doing it and be very, very careful," Gazelka said.

He said he wants to watch what happens in the 11 states and Washington, D.C., where recreational use has been legalized. Gazelka also said he opposes the creation of a task force to study recreational marijuana, an idea that had some bipartisan support last session. But he would be open to looking at ways to make medical marijuana less expensive, as long as that discussion is strictly focused on medical use.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044