Has the US Reached A Tipping Point On Pot?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
If California voters approve Proposition 19 in next month's election, anyone in the state over the age of 21 will be able to legally possess an ounce of marijuana, and grow their own. Local governments will have the option to regulate commercial production and retail sales.
Since 1996, 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. New Jersey's Compassionate Medical Marijuana Act went into effect just four days ago. Proposition 19, though, directly attacks the federal marijuana law and, in the most recent polls, a narrow majority of Californians approve.
We may be at a tipping point, where marijuana follows alcohol and gambling from criminal offense to pastime - and a huge, new source of taxes. Pot is already the largest cash crop in the state of California and this week, Governor Schwarzenegger reduced the penalty for possession of small amounts to little more than a traffic ticket.
If medical marijuana is legal where you live Alaska, Hawaii, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, Virginia what has changed as a result? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Christopher Hill, recently returned U.S. ambassador to Iraq. But first, the tipping point on marijuana. Michael Montgomery covers the economics and politics of marijuana for KQED in San Francisco and for California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. And he joins us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. MICHAEL MONTGOMERY (Reporter, KQED, California Watch): Nice to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And Proposition 19 was a little bit behind in the polls before. Now, it seems to have moved ahead. What's changed?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, that's the big question. We don't exactly know what's changed. But essentially, the numbers seem to have reversed themselves since July. That is, the latest poll from September shows about 49 percent of possible voters supporting it, 42 percent against.
It's worth noting that in that period of time - or about that period of time -most of the political establishment in California has lined up against Proposition 19, as well as many major newspapers. Is there a correlation there? Are people looking at that and angry at government and saying, well, we're not going to listen to you; we're going to vote on this anyway?
There's a lot of other factors, but it is interesting to note that the politicians - like Diane Feinstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others - speaking out against 19, voters just right now maybe aren't listening that closely to their message.
CONAN: Take us back a few years - maybe 1985, 1990. Legalization or normalization or decriminalization of marijuana was thought to be absolutely dead. What happened to revive it?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, go back to the mid-'90s. We had a group of activists who argued that marijuana should be made available for seriously ill patients, people with things like AIDS or cancer. And you had quite an extraordinary situation in the Bay Area, where those people who were providing what they say is medical cannabis to patients, were being arrested, were being prosecuted. And I think a lot of people here felt that that exposed an absurdity of our drug laws, that people could be sent to prison for essentially helping out the seriously ill.
So in 1996, voters passed Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act. And since then, what we've seen is this access to so-called medical marijuana has expanded, and millions of Californians have been able to get it with a variety of maladies or symptoms, from cancer to perhaps more benign things like insomnia or chronic pain. So go ahead.
CONAN: I was just going to say, a lot of people who opposed that law said: This is just the thin end of the wedge; they argue it's for compassionate use, but they're really after legalization.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, I think, you know, the activist community was divided even back then. I think there were a lot of people who saw this as a potential wedge. That is, you could create a medical marijuana program, you could expand it, you could perhaps change people's attitudes about the use of marijuana, and I think there's many activists who talk - who would say that.
Now, there also - still is a core of people who believe that marijuana should still be confined to patients, to seriously ill patients. They are in the minority. And what we've seen is an expansion of quite a substantial marketplace, if you will, with people who call themselves potrepreneurs(ph) or ganjapreneurs(ph), who are opening up businesses and setting up franchises in other states that have medical marijuana laws.
CONAN: And to an extent that if you're not in a state that has legalized medical marijuana - we just don't understand. Describe for us the scene in Oakland, for example.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, Oakland sort of prides itself as being on the cutting edge of medical marijuana. The city council, actually this evening, is expected to put the finishing touches on a new ordinance that will allow for the licensing of quite large indoor pot farms, possibly the largest of their kind in the world.
They're lining up to compete around the state for tax dollars from this medical marijuana. And Oakland has made it abundantly clear that if Proposition 19 passes - or that's the Oakland City Council, anyway - that they will be on the forefront of creating both cultivation and sales in Oakland, possibly for the rest of the state.
CONAN: You've told us that most of the major politicians in the state have lined up - and the newspapers - against Proposition 19. Who's for it?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, another good question. I mean, there are lots of people. The campaign for Proposition 19 has been funded largely by folks with a financial stake in the medical marijuana industry - people like Richard Lee, who runs a marijuana trade school in Oakland. There's been a lot of small contributions as well.
But overall, Neal, there hasn't been that much of a public campaign. And that's really in contrast to 1996, when Proposition 215 faced a lot of advertisements against it and for it. The campaign has been quiet, and it really has been played out in the pages of newspapers and in some speeches but really, we haven't heard a lot about it in the public sphere.
CONAN: California's an expensive state to run political ads in, but - so it's a quiet campaign. So none of the arguments have essentially changed. What seems to be one thing that is different is the state is in a whole new financial arena. The argument of can we regulate it and tax it - is that cutting any ice, do you think?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, the name of the bill is Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act. And I think, you know, I've talked to a lot of people -conservatives, liberals, middle-of-the-road folks - and the title, they find appealing.
You know, our state is in a budget crisis ongoing. They can't seem to agree on a new budget. And it seems obvious to a lot of people that if we can regulate something that people are already doing and tax it, why not? You know, and I hear that from a lot of different people. Now, keep in mind there still is opposition to the proposition, but a lot of people just say it's no big deal. You know, people are using marijuana anyway, and this is just legalizing, you know, possession of less than an ounce.
So I think if there weren't such a financial crisis, perhaps support would be less.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Montgomery, who reports for KQED and California Watch. He's on the marijuana beat. If you'd like to join the conversation, we'd especially like to hear from those of you in states where medical marijuana is legal. What's changed as a result, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And we'll start with Steven(ph), Steven with us from Westchester in Pennsylvania, where I don't think the laws have changed.
STEVEN (Caller): The laws have not changed here, no. My question is basically about the Federal Controlled Substance Drug Device and Cosmetic Act of '72. And how do the states get around this federal law that makes marijuana a scheduled drug?
CONAN: Michael Montgomery?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, that's right. Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug. Essentially, what's happened is, the federal government - and the Obama administration has articulated this - has essentially allowed for an exemption under the medical marijuana program. That is to say, as long as this is the way they've articulated it, Attorney General Holder, for example - as long as California enforces its medical marijuana laws, the federal government will not go after people who are in compliance with those laws.
Now that's a big if, and there's a huge gray area about who's in compliance and who's not. But essentially, whether this is articulated in policy or not, functionally, there's an exemption right now for medical marijuana. The question is, if Prop 19 is approved and we see legal recreational marijuana sales, large-scale cultivation, will the feds sit on their hands and allow that to happen? Big question.
STEVEN: May I just ask a follow-up? If marijuana is a Schedule I drug, I guess I understand that there's really no accepted medical use in the United States. So this exemption is kind of strange.
CONAN: Looking the other way, I think it's called, yes.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: That's right. And there's inconsistency there - the idea that the federal government has said that marijuana has no therapeutic uses. Again, I think there's some wiggle room there. There's been talk that the feds might consider downgrading, if you will, marijuana from a Schedule I drug. It does seem - certainly - at odds with the will of many voters in many states. But right now, we're in a very curious situation, no doubt.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steven.
STEVEN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. What's happening to the price of marijuana as the result of legalization?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Ah, that is an interesting question. So what we've seen over the last year or two is what one would except with demand - or rather, with competition. We've seen a flood of growers coming in - some from out of the state; some from here - and a huge amount of marijuana being grown here, both indoors and outdoors. And that's pushed down prices quite substantially if you are an outdoor grower, growing up in the woods or the hills of Northern California.
And that leads to an interesting question. The predictions are that if Prop 19 passes, and cities and counties actually legalize sales, prices will slump even further. There's a Rand report that talks about prices falling to as low as $40 an ounce.
But prices remain high in states where it's still illegal, especially on the East Coast. So for those people who are looking for the large profit margins and willing to take the risk, growing in California and exporting out of state is quite a good opportunity. It might send you to prison, but you could also make a lot of money.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from John(ph) in San Jose: Even though I am a recreational pot-smoker, I am appalled by the number of medical dispensaries near me and the blatant farce that is the medical excuse. The majority of the patients have no ailments. Why is it to get any other prescription, you have to go through a pharmacist? I hope they either fully legalize marijuana or shut down the medical dispensaries.
And this one from Melissa(ph) in Denver, Colorado: We've had medical marijuana for a few years now, but the dispensaries are new. They are so numerous right now. They are a bit of a nuisance. I think now during the recession, it's an optimal time to have a real conversation about cannabis, both medical and recreational. We also just can't afford this drug war on the same scale anymore.
When we come back, we'll check in on the situation in Colorado with Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio. Michael Montgomery of KQED and California Watch will stay with us as well. What's changed where you live, if the marijuana laws have changed? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Attitudes about medical marijuana are changing. It's now legal in over a dozen states. There's a measure on the ballot in California that would make marijuana recreationally legal.
If you live in one of those states where things are changing, call us and tell us how they've changed, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Joining us now is Megan Verlee, general assignment reporter for Colorado Public Radio News, former producer here at TALK OF THE NATION. She joins us from the studios of CPR in Centennial, Colorado. Megan, always nice to talk to you.
Ms. MEGAN VERLEE (General Assignment Reporter, Colorado Public Radio News): Great talking with you, Neal.
CONAN: And how has the situation we just had that email just before the break, of somebody saying there are so many dispensaries now in Colorado. What happened, did they explode - all of a sudden?
Ms. VERLEE: They really did. We have just over 800 right now, which - per capita, at least - means that Colorado has the most dispensaries for population.
Last year, with that memo coming from the Justice Department saying we're not going to prosecute people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws, and a state-level decision by the Department of Public Health that people providing marijuana could provide it to more than there was a limit of five patients, and that got challenged and went away.
About this time last year, dispensaries started opening up around the state -really quick growth, and hasn't stopped. The state passed some regulations in the spring that have slowed that at this point. But by the time the state got into the game, we had hundreds of them. And there are places in Denver where, you know, you can drive down the street, and block after block after block, you see new businesses.
CONAN: And are these hidden away in back alleys?
Ms. VERLEE: No, not at all, actually. You have several right around the main -kind of tourist pedestrian mall in downtown. There are neighborhoods that are kind of known for them around the University of Boulder and in parts of Denver.
But not there are some advertising restrictions out there, but a lot of them have very visible signage and are very - it's very clear what they are.
CONAN: And in Colorado, this is all medical marijuana. Is it as the emailer suggested, is this just a thin excuse?
Ms. VERLEE: It's hard to tell. There are, anecdotally, reasons to think that there are people, and possibly a lot of people, on the registry who may not have the conditions they say they have. The vast percentage of cards are given for pain. And chronic pain is definitely a very real condition and, you know, there aren't but there aren't tests for it.
So some people have interpreted that as a loophole. A large number of the people getting these cards are younger and male, which also tracks with the population that reports recreational use.
So you can look at some things and say maybe not all the 100,000 or so estimated people on the registry are using it purely because it's absolutely, medically necessary.
CONAN: Here's an email from Denver, from Steven Van Dorn(ph): I live out in Denver, where we've passed many laws through voting to decriminalize marijuana. We have dispensaries on nearly every corner in some neighborhoods in Denver.
I'd say the biggest change that occurred since the law passed here is that the black market, illicit, for pot has nearly dried up. Now I suffer from continuous joint pain, and the medicinal stuff would be lovely to have access to, particularly with regard to the nausea that accompanies ordinary anti-inflammatory drugs.
It's actually too potent for my whims, and the lower-quality stuff would be vastly better for my personal use. Unfortunately, I can't find any anymore, after years of having nearly no problem.
The black market in marijuana, has that dried up in Colorado?
Ms. VERLEE: I kind of wonder where he's going. I looked into this earlier this summer - and one of the great research tools for looking for the black market, I found, is to go to the kind of concerts that have a heavy percentage of marijuana-smokers at them.
And talking with people out there, they said, you know, the friends I used to buy from, they're still selling. They're having a harder time selling, but they've still got stuff to move.
There are people who stayed in the black market, specifically because in Colorado, you do have to register with the state to get your medical marijuana card, and some people are very nervous about that.
The state is starting to talk about maybe tracking purchases, worried that people are buying a lot at dispensaries and then selling that on the black market.
And so there's a lot of talk that as the medical side becomes more regulated in the state, you may see people returning to the black market.
But I have heard on the other side that, you know, it's not a great business to be in right now, as a pot dealer.
CONAN: Michael Montgomery, what about in California?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, we're talking about two different things. There is the distribution of marijuana or cannabis, and then there is the cultivation of it.
California still grows - I would argue - much of the marijuana that's consumed in America. And so that side of the black market has probably expanded in the last 10 years. We hear these stories of these enormous, illegal pot grows on national forest land, public lands. And those numbers continue to rise.
So certainly, as a producing state, if you will, it's expanding. And again, the argument is even if Prop 19 passes, that export market, if you will, will not go away.
CONAN: But on the retail side, that market has dried up?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: I don't think it's dried up. I think that there's a very blurry market that is questionably legal, questionably part of the medical marijuana program.
But no, I mean, if you go out in the streets of San Francisco, you're going to see pot being sold - perhaps not quite as much. And I think there's plenty of police officers in the Bay Area who would say they now see less violence, rather than more, related to marijuana. So that is an interesting trend.
CONAN: Let's get a caller.
Ms. VERLEE: Can I...?
CONAN: Oh, go ahead, Megan, I'm sorry.
Ms. VERLEE: I just wanted to add one thing there that I'd heard from law enforcement in Colorado, that I thought was funny, is that they are when they do undercover buys, they're finding dealers now all compare their product to dispensary product. So perhaps this emailer who is looking for weaker or lower-grade marijuana, what he's even hearing on the street may be oh, this is as strong as the dispensary stuff.
And I think that's an interesting marketing tool that apparently, has moved into the black market.
CONAN: Branding, if you will, yeah. Gail(ph) is on the line from Pontiac, Michigan.
GAIL (Caller): Hello.
GAIL: I have just a few comments to make. I need medical marijuana, but I don't need it for any of the reasons that are approved. I need it to focus. I don't use much of it. I use it throughout the day, and I end my use when I'm done working for the day.
This causes a couple of problems for me. It makes me look like a criminal to my daughter. So she thinks other criminal activity must be okay, even though I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't break laws.
And then secondly, which I probably shouldn't even say this on the air, the state of Michigan found out that I smoked it, and had my daughter put in foster care, which damaged her education.
She was moved and moved and moved to six different high schools, and she had to end up getting her GED - which, thank God, she did. But it would be nice for me to look like a legal person, when I am, I think. But it hasn't changed for me.
I still get robbed by drug dealers. And I still pay the same amount.
CONAN: I assume you've looked into other, alternative medications?
GAIL: Oh, nothing works like marijuana. It's mild. It brings me right to the focus I need. If I take anything stronger, it puts me to sleep, or it makes me dizzy, or it makes me sick, or you get hooked on something.
CONAN: It's interesting. We have this email from Cheryl Davis(ph), also in Michigan, where she says the law was passed two years ago. What has happened is nothing. Most cities have passed bans on the manufacture of pot. Many people have state-issued cards but unless you grow your own as a provider, you are out of luck locating it legally.
Most people who need the drug don't want months to wait or money to invest in equipment to grow your own. Thus, the state has made a legal drug, overwhelmingly approved by voters, a criminal endeavor to get. Citizens of Michigan deserve better.
And Gail, you're saying that even if it was available, it would not cover your condition.
GAIL: Not yet. So I like that proposition that they have going. You know, I'm sure that it's not great for everybody in the world. I'm sure there's some people who smoke it, and it makes them lazy. But a lot of people use it for what you should use it for - which is to have a happy and productive life, and to be able to give to society.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Gail.
GAIL: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it, bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Lupe(ph), Lupe with us from Highland, Michigan.
LUPE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
LUPE: Thanks for taking my call.
LUPE: I am currently waiting for my registry ID card. I was approved for marijuana a few weeks ago. And I did have to obtain it illegally prior to this, and it was always an issue, you know, for discretionary measures, for safety of my family or myself - from being arrested and prosecuted. So that is going to make a huge difference for me.
I do have a couple questions, however. As far as dispensaries, clubs, providers, how do you obtain one that you trust what they're growing? Is it because before, I had no idea what I was getting.
CONAN: Sure. Michael Montgomery, how has that worked out in California?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, it hasn't worked out very well, actually. Dispensaries really aren't regulated at the state level. Some cities have stepped up, like Oakland, and tried to create regulations. But for example, in testing of marijuana for pesticides and other toxins, there's really not much of a program, certainly no state agency.
The other question about access and safe access, which activists consider very important, is that even in California, there's a paradox. There's more dispensaries now, probably, than ever before - perhaps not in Los Angeles but at the same time, around 260 counties and cities have banned or imposed moratoria on dispensaries. So dispensaries really are still in a legal gray zone. And that is to say, how marijuana is being distributed - medical marijuana - still hasn't quite been sorted out in California.
CONAN: Lupe, thanks very much for the call.
LUPE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Here's an email from David in Denver. Here in the Denver-Boulder area, medical marijuana dispensaries are as ubiquitous as Starbucks, with provocative names like Dr. Reefer and Ganja Gourmet. From my perspective, these dispensary owners are simply pot entrepreneurs jockeying for position in the eventual legal marketplace. States like Colorado should drop the charade and legalize marijuana and tax, and regulate it like tobacco and alcohol.
Megan Verlee, any movement towards legalization as opposed to medical marijuana?
Ms. VERLEE: There actually is. There are two right now, two groups, both working to get something on the 2012 ballot - both watching California very closely. And it's interesting. The division there is between Safer Colorado, which is, I believe, actually working on the amendment - on Proposition 19 right now, and wants that same kind of modeled - model of taxed and regulated, full legalization. And the other group is really - they describe marijuana as wanting to regulate it like Echinacea, basically - much less regulation, encouraging no extraordinary taxation of it. Both those groups are kind of out there working on language, and will eventually be gathering petition signatures as well.
CONAN: And in California, Michael Montgomery, as you look at this campaign that we're seeing, we got this email that says slippery slope - this from Philip(ph) - slippery slope; so are child pornography and dog-fighting next? Is that some of the tenor of the campaign opposing Proposition 19?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Not quite; they haven't gone quite that far. But there is - as much as there's been a unified message - and it hasn't been that strong - there have been the older arguments of, you know, marijuana is a gateway drug, a dangerous substance, could be harmful to kids. We have heard some of that. Again, I'm questioning how effective that message is going to be today, where pot is - marijuana is quite ubiquitous. I think there has been, to some degree, a shift in attitudes. But again, there are a lot of Californians who won't support it and will vote against it.
CONAN: And is it fair to say that most of the money in favor of Proposition 19, for that campaign, is coming from these medical marijuana entrepreneurs?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Yes, the ganjapreneurs. Most of the big money, yes, has come from people who, as I mentioned, people in Oakland who already own medical marijuana establishments. There have been smaller contributions. We've seen a map that's mapped those contributions, largely coming from the coastal metropolitan areas, the Bay Area, Los Angeles. Interestingly, not a lot of donations from the growers up north. That seems - they're a bit worried about what legalization might do to the price of their product, if you will. So there's a concern up north among growers about where the economy might be heading.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Michael Montgomery of KQED and California Watch. Also with us, Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio News. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Let's go next to Terry(ph), Terry with us from Placer County in California. Terry, you there?
TERRY (Caller): Yes, I am here.
CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.
TERRY: Well, I served in the military from '64 to '68 as a corpsman in the Marine Corps mostly. That's a medic, to most people.
TERRY: And then after getting out, I served as a deputy probation officer in one of the counties in California. When the vote comes up, for a number of reasons, it's my intent to vote pro or for the use of medical and/or any other recreational use of marijuana. I would guess my background as a probation officer, and having it exposed to me but never having used it, I have a fairly unbiased viewpoint. And another party in my house is going to vote the opposite direction, so I guess we'll set each other off.
CONAN: Balance each other out. What about your neighbors?
TERRY: Well - and we do have a propensity in this county to be heavily Republican, and most Republicans are against it. And I would say that the neighborhood would be against it, for the most part.
CONAN: Interesting. Thanks very much for the call, Terry.
TERRY: Sure. Take care.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Michael Montgomery, turn back to you. The Cato Institute, here in Washington, published a report last month that - if marijuana was treated as a legally regulated commodity, would yield some $17.4 billion annual in cost savings and new tax revenue. There's also the savings of not putting people in jail, and not prosecuting them. Are some of those money numbers convincing people, do you think?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, it's certainly a big part of the argument, and it's twofold. The first is the basic argument that no one should go to jail or prison for possession of marijuana. Largely, that's the case in California. Governor Schwarzenegger just passed a new - or signed a new law, which essentially downgrades small medical - or small marijuana possession to less than a misdemeanor - just an infraction, like a speeding ticket.
The other argument, though, is if we can do away with the black market, then other law enforcement - there will be other savings for law enforcement. There's a lot of numbers that are thrown around, both in the savings and in the tax revenue. The RAND Corporation put out a report last summer which basically says, we don't know. We don't know what the tax revenue will be, in part because we don't exactly know what will happen to the black market. Again, I've said that many growers here will continue to grow for export to other states and will avoid taxes.
CONAN: Yet we seem to have gone away from the argument of a few years ago, where much of it was couched in moral terms - the gateway drug we're exposing our youth to, corruption, and that sort of thing - to cost-benefit analysis. Is that almost a tipping point in and of itself, do you think, Michael?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, I think you've pinpointed a shift, that the rhetoric has changed. You don't hear that kind of language as much anymore. You go to an Oakland City Council meeting about marijuana, and 90 percent of the debate will be about taxation levels. It's gonna be 4 percent or 8 percent or 6 percent. That does suggest, I think, a shift in public attitudes.
CONAN: And let me ask you about another sort of leaf, a fig leaf. I'm coming out to California tomorrow to do a show there, at KQED. The Political Junkie will be with us. How long do you think it would take me to get a card? I'm perfectly healthy.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Oh, I'm sure we could find some ailment, Neal. I bet your neck is sore at the end of the day. We could walk you up probably six, seven blocks away from KQED. And you get a meeting with a doctor, and I'm sure that there is some ailment that the doctor could find, that would entitle you to a medical marijuana card. However, you'd have to move to California to become a California resident first.
CONAN: Well, darn it. Michael Montgomery, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. We'll see you tomorrow.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Thank you.
CONAN: Michael Montgomery works with KQED and California Watch. And Megan Verlee, thank you for your time, too.
Ms. VERLEE: Thank you.
CONAN: Megan Verlee works for Colorado Public Radio News, with us today from CPR Studios in Centennial, Colorado.
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