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Senate Judiciary Committee Advances Smarter Sentencing Act

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday gave its imprimatur to the Smarter Sentencing Act, approving the bill and sending it on to a Senate floor vote. The bill is designed to reduce the federal prison population and decrease racial disparities and, if passed by Congress, would mark the biggest federal sentencing reform in decades.

The act, Senate Bill 1410, cuts mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violations, makes retroactive the crack cocaine sentencing reforms passed in 2010, and gives judges greater discretion to sentence below mandatory minimums when the facts of the case warrant it.

The act was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators from across the political spectrum, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

"The tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there is now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers."

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) also welcomed the bill's progress, but said that it was not happy with some changes included as the bill made its way through the committee.

"We strongly support the underlying bill; however, we have deep concerns about changes made during markup. These changes include new mandatory minimums for domestic violence and sexual abuse that are unjustified and opposed by the very victims they are supposed to protect," the group noted.

"Although FAMM would prefer the total repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, this bill is a necessary compromise that will help address many of the drivers of our exploding prison populations. The reform package is bipartisan, reasonable, and will save taxpayers billions of dollars by locking up fewer nonviolent drug offenders for shorter periods of time. It also focuses on over-criminalization, a monster that no one has been able to get a handle on, but one that must be brought under control."

While the bill has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, companion legislation is languishing in the Republican-controlled House. House Bill 3382, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and 15 cosponsors, is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Advocates are calling on Goodlatte, who helped establish a House Over-Criminalization Task Force last year, to move on the Smarter Sentencing Act.

"Seven of the 10 members of the Over-Criminalization Task Force currently support mandatory minimum sentencing reform, and all of the Task Force members have shown interest in getting a handle on our enormous criminal code," said FAMM's Julie Stewart. "The interest is there, and the time is right -- this is something that Congress could actually do this year."

The favorable Senate Judiciary Committee vote -- it passed 13-5 -- came even as federal prosecutors came out in opposition to it. In a Monday letter to Attorney General Holder, the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys opposed reforms to mandatory minimums.

"We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction," the organization said. "Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving."

That sparked a tough rebuke from the Drug Policy Alliance.

"It is disgraceful that prosecutors continue to defend a criminal justice system that is profoundly racially unjust and cruel," said Piper. "While support for major reform is growing in both political parties, many prosecutors are still living in the dark ages."

Washington, DC
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Justice Dept. Wants More Drug Clemency Applicants

In an unusual move, the Obama administration Thursday told defense lawyers they should suggest more inmates serving time on drug charges who might be deserving of clemency.

That would be a dramatic expansion of the Obama administration's use of the pardon and clemency power to free low-level non-violent drug offenders. At year's end, Obama pardoned eight long-serving crack cocaine offenders.

In a speech to the New York State Bar Association, Deputy Attorney General James Cole told attendees that the Justice Department wanted more names to forward to the White House -- and that the defense bar could be of assistance.

"This is where you can help," he said. "You each can play a critical role in this process by providing a qualified petitioner -- one who has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life sentence that is excessive under current law -- with the opportunity to get a fresh start."

Cole said that despite moves to reduce the number of low-level non-violent drug offenders in federal prisons, many remain, serving long sentences they would not be receiving in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and recent Justice Department directives to seek lower drug sentences.

"This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system," said Cole. "To help correct this, we need to identify these individuals and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice."

The Justice Department is seeking to identify prisoners in circumstances similar to those of the eight who were granted clemency so it can recommend them for clemency as well, he said. The federal Bureau of Prisons will also begin advising inmates of the opportunity to apply, he said.

Dept. of Justice Requesting Drug Clemency Petitions?

Update: Here's the news. Potentially sounds really big.

I haven't seen reporting on it yet (or missed it), but Nkechi Taifa (Open Society Foundations) has tweeted that DOJ is requesting drug clemency petitions.

We'd hoped when Obama granted commutations to several federal prisoners serving mandatory minimums, including Clarence Aaron, that it might be the start of something bigger. That is now looking more likely.

House Farm Bill Does Not Have Food Stamps Drug Testing!

Phil reported yesterday that the House version of the US Farm Bill includes language authorizing industrial hemp production by universities for research. The full text of the bill can be read here -- look for "SEC. 7605. LEGITIMACY OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP RESEARCH" to read the hemp-related language.

There's more good news, which is that the bill as passed this week omits language passed in a previous version of the Farm Bill that would encourage states to drug test Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP -- formerly known as "food stamps") recipients. When the legislation was first passed last June (under a different bill number), it had both the (good) hemp language and the (bad) drug testing language.

Smarter Sentencing Act Passes Senate Judiciary Committee

The Smarter Sentencing Act has just passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have learned -- and with a wide (and bipartisan) 13-5 margin.

As before, see our Twitter page for some of the on-site reports.

Good news -- more hopefully to come soon.

In Breakthrough, Farm Bill Includes Hemp Amendment [FEATURE]

The omnibus federal farm bill approved by Congressional conference committee negotiators this week and destined to be quickly signed into law includes the hemp amendment that was approved by the House last year before the bill blew up over Republican efforts to cut food stamp spending. The final version of the farm bill passed the House Wednesday morning.

hemp field at sunrise (votehemp.com)
Originally introduced by Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO), Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the hemp amendment doesn't legalize hemp production, but it does allow for research on industrial hemp by universities and state agriculture departments in the 10 states that have approved hemp production. There are two bills pending in Congress that would legalize hemp; they are House Resolution 525, the "Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013," and the companion legislation, Senate Bill 359.

The 10 states that have already passed laws allowing hemp production are California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, and the vote comes as even more states are showing an interest in hemp. Hemp bills have been introduced in 11 states this year, including Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, New Jersey (carried over from 2013), New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington (two bills were carried over from 2013) West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

"Although I strongly opposed the Republican Farm Bill, I was pleased to see that the bipartisan amendment that I offered with Representatives Blumenauer and Massie was included in the final bill that passed the House of Representatives today," said Rep. Polis. "This common sense amendment will allow colleges and universities to grow and cultivate industrial hemp for academic and agricultural research purposes in states where industrial hemp cultivation is already legal. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that this language becomes law."

"This is an important victory for farmers, manufacturers, and consumers in Kentucky and across the country. Our amendment paves the way for production of industrial hemp by first allowing America's academic and research institutions to demonstrate that hemp and the products derived from hemp present a great economic opportunity for our country," said Rep. Massie. "The inclusion of our industrial hemp amendment in the farm bill reflects widespread support for cultivating industrial hemp and proves Congress can work together in a bipartisan fashion to help the American economy at a time when creating jobs is a national priority."

hemp supporter Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) (house.gov)
"With the U.S. hemp industry estimated at over $500 million in annual retail sales and growing, a change in federal law to allow for colleges and universities to grow hemp for research would mean that we will finally begin to regain the knowledge that unfortunately has been lost over the past fifty years," says Vote Hemp President, Eric Steenstra. "The American Farm Bureau Federation announced their opposition to the controlled substance classification of hemp earlier this month, and now passage of this amendment means America can get on track to once again become the predominant producer and manufacturer of hemp -- one of the most versatile and ecological industrial crops on the planet."

The hemp amendment was among the few provisions in the farm bill that had not been previously approved by both houses of Congress. That it made it into the final version of the farm bill was a testament to the bill's support, and to some key supporters, Steenstra told the Chronicle Wednesday.

"Senator Wyden introduced an amendment to the Senate farm bill that was more expansive than the House version, but the leadership limited the votes severely and our provision never got a vote," Steenstra explained. "That, combined with the fact that Senator Leahy had basically cleared it through Judiciary, allowed it to go forward. But ultimately, Senator McConnell and other conferees spoke up for it."

Both McConnell and his fellow Kentucky US senator, Rand Paul, have been ardent hemp supporters, supporting legislation both at the state level and now, in Washington.

"This is an important victory for Kentucky's farmers, and I was pleased to be able to secure this language on behalf of our state," McConnell said in a statement issued Tuesday. "By giving states the go-ahead to cultivate hemp for pilot programs, we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers. By exploring innovative ways to use hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, while avoiding negative impact to Kentucky law enforcement's efforts at marijuana interdiction, the pilot programs authorized by this legislation could help boost our state's economy."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) played a key role. (senate.gov)
"We think this is pretty significant," Steenstra said. "It's an excellent first step to revitalize what was once a proud and significant industry in this country. A big part of our farming economy has been lost, and we have to work to recover it."

The bill not only allows universities to do hemp research, Steenstra noted, but it also allows state agriculture departments to do pilot studies.

"That's a little bit more expansive than just research," he said. "The can look into things like marketing and cultivation of hemp, and that's a significant opportunity for the 10 states where it is legal."

Steenstra didn't think inclusion of the hemp amendment in the farm bill would take the oomph out the pending hemp legalization bills.

"We've made it very clear, and all of our supporters in Congress understand this, that this is just a first step," he said. "There are a lot of people anxious to grow hemp, and this won't really solve that. We will be able to get some crops in the ground and show that hemp is not the boogie man we feared, but commercial farmers still won't be able to grow it until we get those bill passed."

Although hemp proponents are careful to draw a bright line between industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana, the growing national debate over -- and acceptance of -- marijuana has been a help rather than a hindrance, Steenstra said.

"The reality is that hemp has been caught up in marijuana policy for 70-some years," he noted. "There is no way to deal with hemp policy without looking at overall marijuana policy. These are two separate tracks, but at the same time, having a lot of people looking at marijuana policy has been a good thing for hemp."

New leadership at the DEA would be a good thing, too, Steenstra said, moaning aloud as he recounted DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart's comment last week that the low point of her career was seeing a hemp flag fly over the US capitol.

"Of all the things she should be down about, she complains about a flag made out of non-drug hemp fiber," he said."We're hoping a more enlightened DEA head will come in and replace her and bring some sanity to policy over there."

Washington, DC
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Chronicle AM -- January 29, 2014

Superbowl-linked banners chiding the NFL on marijuana policy go up, drug testing of students, workers, and welfare recipients is in the news, a federal sentencing reform bill picks up support, Guatemalan peasants pick up rocks and sticks to chase off eradicators, and more. Let's get to it:

MPP's Superbowl billboards take advantage of the hoopla to challenge the NFL.
Marijuana Policy

Obama's State of the Union Remarks on Marijuana Policy. Sorry, there weren't any. Nor did he speak about sentencing reform or any other aspect of drug policy.

Superbowl Banners Chide NFL on Marijuana Hypocrisy. The Marijuana Policy Project has launched a billboard blitz on the NFL, using five billboards around MetLife Stadium, where the game will be played Sunday, to highlight the hypocrisy of the leagues' marijuana policy. The group also delivered a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to league headquarters in New York City Wednesday calling on the league to stop punishing players for using pot.

Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll Has Support for Legalization at 55%. Yet another poll is out showing majority support for marijuana legalization. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has it at 55%. Click on the link for more details.

Nevada Legalization Advocates Focus on 2015. Nevada marijuana activists are crafting language for an initiative to legalize the herb with an eye on gathering enough signatures this year and next to put the measure before the state legislature. If the legislature then fails to approve it, it would go before the voters in 2016.

Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Announces Selection of First Medical Marijuana Producers. State officials Tuesday announced that four applicants have been chosen as the first-ever producers of medical marijuana to serve the needs of seriously ill patients in Connecticut. Each of the four businesses now must establish escrow arrangements in the amount of $2 million, and pay their annual license fee, at which time their operating license will be issued. Producers must be operational within 180 days of licensure. Additional information about the licensed producers will be made available in the near future.

Harm Reduction

10th Annual National Harm Reduction Conference Set for Baltimore in October. This is the nation's largest annual harm reduction event. Click on the link for all the details.

Drug Testing

New Jersey School District Abandons Random Student Drug Testing Bid. The Northern Valley Regional School District has given up its effort to impose random drug testing on students involved in extracurricular activities. After a year of debate, with many parents fiercely opposing the plan, the school board voted it down 5-4.

Maine Workplace Drug Testing Bill Under Consideration. A bill backed by conservative Republican Gov. LePage and the state Department of Labor is designed to encourage an expansion of drug testing by private employers. Legislative Document 1669 would remove the current provision that requires employers to maintain an employee assistance program and pay for half the costs of drug treatment. The bill would also make it easier for employers to identify potential drug abuse by creating a probable standard for testing that could be triggered by a single accident within the workplace. The bill is opposed by labor unions and the ACLU of Maine, which calls it a serious invasion of employee privacy.

Indiana Welfare Drug Testing Bill Passes House. A welfare drug testing bill easily passed the Republican-dominated House Tuesday. House Bill 1351 would require welfare applicants to take a written test that measures their propensity to use drugs. Those whom the test says are likely to be drug users would be required to undergo drug testing. Persons who fail the drug test could keep their benefits, provided they undergo drug treatment. But, as bill critic Rep. Vanessa Summers (D-Indianapolis) pointed out, the state doesn't offer low-cost drug treatment. The bill now goes to the state Senate.

Sentencing Reform

Federal Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up More Supporters. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, which would reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, give judges more discretion to sentence beneath the mandatory minimums, and apply retroactive sentence reductions to some crack cocaine offenders, has picked up more support this year. It was introduced with two cosponsors, Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Angus King, Jr (I-ME) came on board last fall, and Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have joined as cosponsors this month. The link is to the bill itself.

International

Canada Opposing Harm Reduction Policies in UN Fight. In the fight over new guidelines for the global drug control regime at the United Nations, Canada is opposing efforts to place a stronger emphasis on harm reduction measures. Drug policy groups monitoring the negotiations say Canada has joined ranks with China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Russia in aggressively opposing European endorsements of health policies aimed at reducing harms, such as HIV transmission, among drug users. Canada also opposes the participation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in future UN drug policymaking sessions. "The Government of Canada believes that the best way to address the public health consequences of injection drug-use is to prevent people from using illicit drugs in the first place," said a Canadian government spokesperson, refusing to elaborate further.

Guatemalan Peasants Attack Opium Poppy Eradicators. Scores of opium-growing peasants in a community near the Mexican border attacked a national police contingent sent out to eradicate their crops Monday. Indian peasants in Tajumulco blocked the way and threw rocks, sticks and incendiary bombs at the contingent to stop it from reaching the croplands. Three police officers were injured, but police said they would continue eradication efforts. Last month, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina floated the idea of legalizing the poppy crop.

No Marijuana Decriminalization for Guyana, Home Affairs Minister Says. Guyanese Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee Tuesday shot down any talk of liberalizing the country's marijuana laws. "As we speak at this point in time, at twenty minutes to five, on the twenty-eighth day of January, the position and the policy of the government of Guyana is to pursue a zero tolerance policy in respect of trafficking in narcotics, possession of narcotics and any other form of activity in respect of drugs that are deemed illegal according to the laws of our country and according to the treaties and conventions of an international nature which we have signed on to," the Home Affairs Minister declared.

Jamaican Government Still Scared of Western Opposition to Marijuana Reform. Foreign Affairs Minister AJ Nicholson warned Monday that Jamaica must proceed cautiously with calls to decriminalize or legalize marijuana because of fears of violating global drug control treaties and offending the US and European countries. "There is no consideration at this time about changing the treaties, but there are still some concerns about how some Western countries would view our move towards decriminalize, depenalize or anything like that," he said.

Filipino Legislators Ponder Medical Marijuana. Minority lawmakers in the Philippines are considering medical marijuana. Rep. Rodolofo Albano III said that he planned on filing a bill in March that would permit the sale and purchase of cannabis strictly for medical use.

Ted Cruz Likens Obama Drug Policy to Imperialism

Ted Cruz included drug laws among his examples of "imperialism" on the part President Obama, in remarks on CNN following the State of the Union address tonight. It sounds like Cruz was referring to the guidelines DOJ announced that tolerate Colorado and Washington's marijuana legalization systems, although he did not elaborate so I'm partially guessing.

Assuming that's right, one has to wonder how a Republican who is supposedly for smaller, less intrusive government and for states rights, can define respect by the administration for states' decisions to roll back our incredibly intrusive prohibition laws as "imperial."

Of course we have been making such observations for decades.

Chronicle AM -- January 28, 2014

The hemp amendment gets included in the farm bill, Colorado's Supreme Court will review medical marijuana patients' employment rights, we have a couple of drug war horror stories, Mexico's security apparatus is joining forces with anti-cartel vigilantes, Saudi Arabia's premarital drug testing program isn't working, and more. Let's get to it:

Destiny Hoffman sat in jail for 154 days after a drug court judge forgot about her. (Clark Co. Jail)
Marijuana Policy

New Poll Has Rhode Island Majority for Legalization. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted at mid-month has 53% of Rhode Island voters in favor of changing state law to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. Only 41% were opposed.

Wisconsin Marijuana Legalization Bill to Be Filed. State Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) is looking for cosponsors for a marijuana legalization bill. The bill, not yet filed, would allow adults to possess limited amounts of pot and create a system of regulated marijuana commerce.

Medical Marijuana

Colorado Supreme Court to Review Case of Fired Medical Marijuana Patient. The state Supreme Court announced Monday that it would review the case of Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who was fired from his job for using medical marijuana on his own time. For the first time, the court will consider whether the state constitution gives residents a right to use medical marijuana. A state appeals court had ruled that patients don't have a right to use marijuana, and that employers can fire them for any marijuana use.

Georgia CBD Medical Marijuana Bill to Be Filed Today. State Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) was expected to file a bill today that would allow children suffering from epileptic seizures to use high-CBD cannabis oil. The bill has not appeared on the legislative web site as of this afternoon.

Hemp

Hemp Amendment Included in Farm Bill, Votes Coming Soon. Congressional negotiators have included an amendment allowing for research into the uses of industrial hemp in the omnibus farm bill. Votes in both houses of Congress are expected soon.

Drug Testing

Testing for Drugs of Abuse a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry. Thar's gold in them thar urine samples, and we're not talking about the color of the liquid within. According to a new research report from Transparency Market Research, the global market in testing for drugs of abuse was valued at $2.6 billion in 2012 and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 4.8%, reaching a value of $3.4 billion by 2018. The report notes that North America, including the US, is the largest market for drug testing, followed by the UK, Japan, Germany, and other European countries.

White House Okays Drug Testing Database Plan for Truckers. The White House's Office of Management and Budget Monday signed off on a Department of Transportation draft rule that would establish a central database for positive drug and alcohol tests for commercial driver's license holders. Such a move was required by the 2012 highway spending authorization bill. It would require the employers of CDL license holders to report positive test results and refusals to the central database. Previously, results were only disclosed by carriers to other carriers seeking employment verification.

Law Enforcement

Drug Dog Bites Off Part of Woman's Face. An Oklahoma woman suffered severe injuries after a police drug dog searching her vehicle lunged into her car and bit her in the face. Emily Newman had been pulled over for speeding when a Cherokee Nation marshal asked if he could have a drug dog sniff her vehicle. The officer took her to a nearby hospital, while another officer took a family member back to the scene to pick up a piece of her face left lying on the road. It was later stitched back on at the hospital. Police said unspecified drug charges are pending.

Drug Court Judge Forgets He Jailed Woman for 48 Hours; She Rots There for 154 Days. An Indiana woman sentenced to 48 hours in jail for having violated her drug court program sat there for more than five months because her judge failed to order her release. Emily Hoffman had provided a diluted drug test, and drug court Judge Jerry Jacobi ordered her "to be held until further order of the court." The order was done without a hearing or the presence of legal counsel. Hoffman rotted behind bars until a county prosecutor reviewing old cases noticed her and ordered her immediately released. Hoffman's attorney said a civil suit is likely.

International

New Zealand Labor Party Not Interested in Marijuana Decriminalization. The Labor Party has no intention of decriminalizing marijuana even as it courts the Green Party as a potential coalition partner after upcoming elections. The Greens have long called for decriminalization and reiterated that call this week, but only half-heartedly, making clear that the issue wouldn't be a deal-breaker in coalition negotiations.

Saudi Arabia Premarital Drug Testing A Flop, Health Ministry Says. A mandatory drug testing program for prospective brides and grooms has proven useless in determining addiction levels and thus determining marriage eligibility, a top Health Ministry official said. The testing program was made mandatory after reports of widespread drug use among Saudi youth, but the ministry found that "addicts" fooled the test by abstaining from using drugs before undergoing it. [Editor's Note: "Addicts" who are able to abstain from their drug at will sort of beggar the notion of addiction.]

Canada Supreme Court Rejects Random Drug and Alcohol Testing of Employees. In a decision Monday, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that an arbitrator's decision striking down an employer's random alcohol testing program was reasonable. The company, Irving Pulp and Paper, had unilaterally imposed the testing program, and the employees' union challenged it. The case is Communications, Energy and Paper Union of Canada, Local 30 v Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd.

Mexico Reaches Agreement with Vigilantes to Form Rural Police. Mexican authorities and anti-cartel vigilantes in the western state of Michoacan reached an agreement Monday that would turn the paramilitary forces into "rural police." The agreement is "the integration of citizen groups into institutional life," the interior ministry said, and requires the vigilantes to provide a list of their members and arms to be vetted by security forces. In return, the authorities will provide the new rurales with "the necessary tools for their communication, movement and operation." The vigilantes are at war with the Knights Templar Cartel; some, including Knights Templar members, have accused them of being a front for another cartel, New Generation Jalisco.

Hemp Amendment Included in Federal Farm Bill

The massive federal farm bill, soon to be voted on by both houses of Congress, includes an amendment allowing for research into the industrial uses of hemp.

Vote Hemp announced this morning that the amendment had made the cut.

It allows colleges and universities, and now also state agriculture departments per the conference committee revisions, to grow hemp for academic or agricultural research purposes, but applies only to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law.

We'll probably do a feature story on this, but for now, here's a Vote Hemp press release with more details.

Location: 
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