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New Drugs Get Same Old Response on Capitol Hill [FEATURE]

Confronted with the rising popularity of new synthetic drugs, Congress is responding in a reflexive prohibitionist manner. Last month, bills aimed at banning the substances moved forward in Congress, despite the protests of advocates and businessmen that lawmakers are simply repeating the mistakes of drug prohibition.

Congress never met a new drug it didn't want to ban. (image via Wikimedia)
The bills are aimed at two distinct classes of designer drugs -- synthetic cannabinoids or fake marijuana sold under names such as Spice and K2, and the synthetic methcathinone derivatives mephedrone and MDVP commonly sold as "bath salts" under names such as Ivory Wave that produce a high likened to those of cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy.

A number of states have moved against fake weed or bath salts or both. In action earlier this year, the DEA imposed a temporary emergency ban on fake weed, but it has not moved yet against bath salts. Now, Congress is poised to get in on the action.

H.R. 1254
, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 and its Senate companion bill, S. 605 would make both fake marijuana and bath salts Schedule I controlled substances, like LSD, heroin, and marijuana. They also attempt to block new designer drugs by banning whole classes of similar chemical compounds. And they seek to expand the period for which the DEA can impose an emergency ban on a new drug, which the agency did earlier this year with synthetic cannabinoids. That bill was moving in House committees last week. 

Two other bills that would do essentially the same thing have also been filed in the Senate. They are S. 409, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and S. 839, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). These bills, though, are aimed only at bath salts. (An additional House bill, H.R. 1571, identified by the Library of Congress legislative tracking system as related to S. 409, has not moved out of committee.)

The bath salts drugs have been associated with spectacular bad reactions, including increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, and some reports of violent behavior. Fake weed has been associated with less dangerous bad reactions, including confusion, nausea and panic attacks.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers warned in May that it had seen a nine-fold increase in bath salts-related calls over the previous year, and that was with less than half the year gone. Last year, centers reported 302 calls; as of May of this year, they had received more than 2,200 calls.

That would clearly seem to suggest that use of bath salts is on the rise, but what it means beyond that is not so clear. Without a handle on actual use levels, it is difficult to determine how frequent such adverse reactions are, or how they compare to reported adverse events with other drugs.

Still, Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said the substances are the worst he has seen in 20 years at the poison center. "These products create a very severe paranoia that we believe could cause users to harm themselves or others," he said.

Oddly enough, for drugs that are touted as being so horrible, evidence from Britain suggests that somebody likes them quite a bit. According to a report last month in the Guardian, which cited recently released scientific research, "Mephedrone is more popular among UK clubbers than ecstasy despite being banned."

"The legal status wasn't considered important," said Fiona Measham, a criminology lecturer who led the research. "Among the people we spoke to, I was surprised how much they liked it, how much they enjoyed it. They wanted to take more and were prepared to seek it out and buy it on the illegal market."

"Ivory Wave" is one popular brand of mephedrone. (image via Wikimedia)
But Congress isn't paying attention to foreign researchers. In a statement typical of congressional discourse on the issue, in a hearing last week, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the sponsor of HB 1254, first listed a number of anecdotal scare stories, then proceeded to warn his colleagues that the drugs were not innocent. "These substances are marketed with innocent sounding names," he said, "but these labels are total misnomers designed to facilitate their legal sale. These drugs have no legitimate medicinal or industrial purposes."

"We are in a new era of drugs," said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), as she prepared to deal with them with the same tired approach Congress has taken with other drugs -- by banning them.

There is a better way, said reform advocates and representative of trade groups.

"Lawmakers are poised to repeat mistakes from the past by creating ineffective laws that will criminalize more people and drive these substances into the illicit market," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. "History has clearly shown that prohibiting a drug makes it more dangerous, not less. Instead of more failed drug prohibition, Congress would be much more successful with an approach that restricts how these drugs are marketed, provides comprehensive drug education, and has strict age controls. To best reduce the harms of these drugs, Congress should instead support rigorous scientific study to better understand what is in these products, and establish a robust system of regulation and control of the synthetic drug market."

"This application of the law is irresponsible," said Daniel Francis, executive director of the Retail Compliance Association, which represents retail outlets that sell (or sold) K2 as he addressed HB 1264. "It is the most irresponsible thing a lawmaker can do, an act of prohibition. I hope they wear the responsibility of the consequences of these acts on their minds forever. This law will force even less understood compounds into the market."

"This legislation comes at a time when Washington is seeking to reduce federal spending. Yet, enforcing a federal ban on synthetic drugs isn't going to be cheap and we already know from marijuana prohibition that this approach won't work," said Smith. "The irony is that the only reason that people use synthetic marijuana is because the real thing is illegal. But passage of this legislation will only further escalate the war on drugs, send more people to jail, exacerbate health harms, and ignore four decades of comprehensive research and review that confirms the war on drugs approach has failed," he added.

"The bill covers some potential ingredients in herbal incense products, by no means all, and these ingredients are invisible, no one, no police officer, or retailer can tell what is in the product, if it is legal or not, and this law provides no direction whatsoever in how one is to determine this," pointed out Francis.

The Retail Compliance Association, which sent a letter of concern to Congress about the issue in April, expects that its efforts to block passage of HB 1264 this year will be in vain. But that doesn't mean it is rolling over and playing dead. Instead, the group said it is forming a coalition to file a legal challenge to the bill "immediately after it passes."

It has taken decades to get past the hysteria and fear-mongering surrounding traditional drugs, and that is a task that is by no means completed. It would be nice if we didn't have to go through the same sort of rigmarole with these new designer drugs, but we do. At least this time around, there are people around from the beginning who and willing to stand and fight.

Washington, DC
United States

Big Name Panel Calls Global Drug War a "Failure" [FEATURE]

The global war on drugs is a failure and governments worldwide should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, a high-profile group of world leaders said in a report issued last Thursday.

Richard Branson blogs about being invited onto the global commission, on virgin.com.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, said the global prohibitionist approach to drug policy, in place since the UN adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a half-century ago, has failed to reduce either the drug supply or consumption.

Citing UN figures, the report said global marijuana consumption rose more than 8% and cocaine use 27% in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Again citing UN figures, the group estimated that there are some 250 million illegal drug consumers worldwide. "We simply cannot treat them all as criminals," the report concluded.

The report also argued that arresting "tens of millions" of low-level dealers, drug couriers, and drug-producing farmers not only failed to reduce production and consumption, but also failed to address the economic needs that pushed people into the trade in the first place.

Prohibitionist approaches also foster violence, most notably in the case of Mexico, the group argued, and impede efforts to stop the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. Governments should instead turn to science- and evidence-based public health and harm reduction approaches, the group said. It cited studies of nations like Portugal and Australia, where the decriminalization of at least some drugs has not led to significantly greater use.

"Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist policies," said former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss. "These policies need to be adopted worldwide, with requisite changes to the international drug control conventions."

The report offered a number of recommendations for global drug policy reform, including:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.
  • Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (especially cannabis) to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.
  • Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available -- including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada.
  • Apply human rights and harm reduction principles and policies both to people who use drugs as well as those involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers.

"Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government's global war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed," said former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives, and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis."

"The war on drugs has failed to cut drug usage, but has filled our jails, cost millions in tax payer dollars, fuelled organized crime and caused thousands of deaths. We need a new approach, one that takes the power out of the hands of organized crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients, not criminals," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and cofounder of The Elders, United Kingdom. "The good news is new approaches focused on regulation and decriminalization have worked. We need our leaders, including business people, looking at alternative, fact based approaches. We need more humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs. The one thing we cannot afford to do is to go on pretending the war on drugs is working."

The Obama administration is having none of it. "Making drugs more available -- as this report suggests -- will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy told the Wall Street Journal the same day the report was released.

That sentiment is in line with earlier pronouncements from the administration that while it will emphasize a public health approach to drug policy, it stands firm against legalization. "Legalizing dangerous drugs would be a profound mistake, leading to more use, and more harmful consequences," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said earlier this year.

But if the White House isn't listening, US drug reformers are -- and they're liking what they're hearing.

"It's no longer a question of whether legalizing drugs is a serious topic of debate for serious people," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a 34-year veteran police officer from Baltimore, Maryland. "These former presidents and other international leaders have placed drug legalization squarely on the table as an important solution that policymakers need to consider. As a narcotics cop on the streets, I saw how the prohibition approach not only doesn't reduce drug abuse but how it causes violence and crime that affect all citizens and taxpayers, whether they use drugs or not."

"These prominent world leaders recognize an undeniable reality. The use of marijuana, which is objectively less harmful than alcohol, is widespread and will never be eliminated," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "They acknowledge that there are only two choices moving forward. We can maintain marijuana's status as a wholly illegal substance and steer billions of dollars toward drug cartels and other criminal actors. Or, we can encourage nations to make the adult use of marijuana legal and have it sold in regulated stores by legitimate, taxpaying business people. At long last, we have world leaders embracing the more rational choice and advocating for legal, regulated markets for marijuana. We praise these world leaders for their willingness to advocate for this sensible approach to marijuana policy."

"The long-term impact of the Global Commission's efforts will be defining," predicted David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "Most people don't realize that there are leaders of this stature who believe prohibition causes much of the harm commonly seen as due to drugs. As more and more people hear these arguments, coming from some of the most credible people on the planet, legalization will come to be viewed as a credible and realistic option."

Other commission members include Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canada; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil (chair); Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health; Maria Cattaui former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland; Carlos Fuentes, writer and public intellectual, Mexico; Asma Jahangir, human rights activist, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan; Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria , France; Mario Vargas Llosa, writer and public intellectual, Peru; George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece; George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair); Javier Solana, former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy , Spain; Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board; John Whitehead, banker and civil servant, chair of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, United States; and Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico.

While the Obama administration may be loathe to listen, the weight of world opinion, as reflected in the composition of the global commission that issued this report, is starting to create stress fractures in the wall of prohibition. A half-century of global drug prohibition has showed us what it can deliver, and the world is increasingly finding it wanting.

Scottish Liberal Democrats Back Prescription Heroin

Scottish Liberal Democrats at their party conference in Perth voted Saturday to make campaigning for heroin maintenance treatment part of their party platform. Heroin users should not be fined or imprisoned, but should be given the drug through the National Health Service, party members agreed.

Tavish Scott's Lib Dems want "heroin on the NHS." (Image via Wikimedia)
The Liberal Democrats are an opposition party in Scotland, holding 16 of 129 Scottish Parliament seats, 11 of 59 Scottish seats in the British Parliament, and one of six Scottish seats in the European Parliament. They are fourth of five major political parties, behind the National Party, Labor, and the Conservatives, but ahead of the Scottish Greens. They are led by Tavish Scott.

The Lib Dems argued that both society and heroin users would benefit from prescribing the drug. Overdose and tainted drug deaths would decline, and addicts would not have to turn to crime or prostitution to feed their habits, they said.

"For drug offenders, fines and jail time simply don't work. In fact a fine will make it much more likely for a drug user to turn to a life of crime to fuel their habit," said Callum Leslie, a candidate for Mid Fife and Glenrothes. "Instead, the Liberal Democrats want to see a much greater use of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs) and Community Service Orders (CSOs). The evidence shows that these methods work. Offenders are forced to pay back the community they harmed and have a chance to get drug free for good. Controlled diamorphine [heroin] treatment is a method that works where other methods have failed. It stops offenders getting street heroin, which can be fatal and turns offenders to further crime to fund their habit."

"There is a great cost to society, and the public purse, if offenders are just abandoned to a cycle of crime and prison," said Alex Cole-Hamilton, Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Central. "DTTOs and CSOs are measures that would save public money by keeping drug abusers out of jail. Drug offenders should not be treated the same as murderers. We should work to treat the problem of drug abuse, not lock addicts away and condemn them to a life of crime."

United Kingdom

Copenhagen Safe Injection Site Set to Open

A private safe injection site for heroin users is set to open in Copenhagen this week despite warnings from police and over the objections of neighbors. The harm reduction operation will be located in the city's Vesterbro district near Central Station. It will be the first in Denmark.

Copenhagen's Vesterbro district (Image via Wikimedia)
Police said they did not oppose the site's opening, but would shut it down if they find people using drugs there. "The room is not illegal per se, but possession of narcotics is illegal," Copenhagen Police spokesman Arne Wissing told the Copenhagen Post.  "We have no intention to sit passively and witness criminal acts, so if we see people in possession of illegal drugs, we will certainly act."

But safe injection site organizer Michael Lodberg Olsen said there was nothing illegal about it. "If that's the case, then they could just as well have shut down all of Vesterbro 30 years ago," he said, referring to needle exchange programs that have operated there for decades. "A report from the UN states that handing out clean needles to drug abusers is the same as establishing an injection room," he said.

Safe injection sites are already operating in Australia, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain. There are no safe injection sites in the US, although there has been talk about establishing one in San Francisco.

Copenhagen
Denmark

Drug Prohibition's Cocaine Traffickers Have Proven Both Vicious and Resilient

Location: 
Since the beginning of the drug prohibition war, the drug trade has ballooned, spreading violence and corruption across large parts of the globe. Despite billions spent on combating them drug traffickers have for decades outwitted the authorities, keeping consumers in North America and Europe supplied at a price and purity that remains remarkably consistent despite law enforcement officials around the world frequently heralding the dismantling of trafficking networks.
Publication/Source: 
The Irish Times (Ireland)
URL: 
http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0127/1224288397713.html

Heroin Drought Causing Problems in England

A scarcity of heroin in England is leading to a growing number of drug overdoses and poisonings as users ingest dope cut with other substances by dealers trying to stretch supplies, The Guardian reported this week. Scene watchers there are calling it the worst drought in years.

Are you sure that's heroin? Be careful out there, especially in England
The drought is being blamed not on seizures by law enforcement agencies, but on a fungus that has blighted the Afghan opium poppy crop, reducing the size of this year's poppy crop by half. Afghanistan accounts for more than 90% of the world's opium production and likely 100% of the British heroin supply.

"There is a very significant heroin shortage across the UK at the moment," said Gary Cross, head of drug policy for the non-profit group Release.  "It has been going on for some time now, but the last two months have seen stockpiles exhausted."

"I've never known anything like it in 30 years," wrote one long-time heroin user on an on-line forum discussing the shortage.

As dealers and users scramble to grapple with the shortage, users are turning up at hospitals after ingesting adulterated heroin or, in some cases, fake heroin consisting of a powerful sedative, caffeine, and paracetamol, a bulking agent. Some have passed out after smoking or ingesting, while others have reported vomiting, amnesia, and flu-like symptoms.

"This 'heroin drought' appears to be serious and geographically widespread," said Neil Hunt, director of research at KCA, a nationwide community drug treatment service. "Street heroin is in a complete and utter muddle at the moment, and users are collapsing unexpectedly. We need to standardize information about what's out there.

"If people use this intravenously, perhaps on top of alcohol and methadone [the prescribed substitute drug for heroin], it is extremely risky," said Dr. John Ramsey, who runs a drug database at St. George's Medical School in London. "We have had many reports of people overdosing. It's really important that accident and emergency departments understand that they may not be dealing with a 'normal' heroin overdose when people are brought in," he said.

Harm reduction drug agencies are aware of the problem and working to address it. Several of them held an urgent meeting last week to discuss setting up an online warning system to give users notice about contaminated or adulterated drugs.

London
United Kingdom

California Governor Vetoes Needle Access Bill

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) last Thursday vetoed a bill that would have allowed pharmacies all over California sell syringes to adults without a prescription. The bill was touted by health experts as a key step in reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases.

mobile needle exchange/clinic site, Fresno
The state Department of Public Health estimates that approximately 3,000 California residents contract hepatitis C through syringe sharing every year and another 750 cases of HIV are caused by syringe sharing. Sharing dirty needles is the leading cause of new hepatitis C infections in the state and the second leading cause of new HIV infections.

"When I signed legislation my first year in office allowing for a pilot program to allow the sale of syringes through participating counties and registered pharmacies, I was seeking to balance the competing public health, law enforcement and local control issues that this issue requires," the governor wrote in his veto message. "I believe this balance was achieved and SB 1029 would remove the ability of local officials to best determine policies in their jurisdiction. Some counties have not sought to implement this pilot program, citing competing priorities, lack of pharmacy interest and law enforcement opposition. I respect these local decisions and while I appreciate the author’s hard work and dedication to this issue, I cannot sign this bill," Schwarzenegger wrote.

Instead, Schwarzenegger signed AB 1701, which extends the existing Disease Prevention Demonstration Project for another eight years. That gives cities and counties the option of opting out of the program and not allowing syringe sales without a prescription.

The veto angered SB 1029 author Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who in a statement last Friday said Schwarzenegger apparently "was not interested in an effective public health measure that would reduce health care costs to taxpayers. Not only did he ignore the recommendation of doctors and other health experts, but he ignored the fact that HIV-AIDS and hepatitis do not recognize county borders. Such epidemics are certain to continue without implementing these comprehensive strategies."

SB 1029's approach "has been evaluated extensively throughout the world and has been found to significantly reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis without contributing to any increase in drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes," Yee continued. "In fact, there is not one credible study that refutes these findings. The governor’s veto is a moral and fiscal dilemma."

The veto was "tragic and infuriating," said Laura Thomas of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported Yee's bill. "It is an irrational attachment to drug war hysteria, at the expense of human life and fiscal responsibility to the California taxpayer," she said. "Nothing would have worked better and cost less in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C than SB 1029."

Sacramento, CA
United States

Former Spanish Drug Czar Says Legalize Drugs

Madrid
Spain

What the Pot Legalization Campaign Really Threatens: Alcohol Industry Profits (Opinion)

Location: 
CA
United States
David Sirota, author of the best-selling books Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, believes our society is drunk off of alcohol propaganda we've had trouble separating fact from fiction.
Publication/Source: 
Alternet (CA)
URL: 
http://www.alternet.org/drugs/148279/what_the_pot_legalization_campaign_really_threatens%3A_alcohol_industry_profits

Alcohol Industry Contributions Net Anti-Marijuana Spokesman on the Hill (Press Release)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 21, 2010

CONTACT: Mason Tvert, SAFER executive director, 720-255-4340

Alcohol Industry Contributions Net Anti-Marijuana Spokesman on the Hill

Congressman speaking out against marijuana and Obama's approach to it has received at least $20,000 from the beer and liquor industry this cycle

DENVER -- A national marijuana advocacy organization is calling on U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) to explain why he is speaking out against marijuana and accusing the current administration of encouraging its use when he is in fact receiving money from the alcohol industry, which produces, distributes and promotes a far more harmful substance.  Late last week, revelations that the alcohol industry is funding the campaign to defeat a marijuana legalization initiative in California resulted in a number of headlines nationwide and sparked outrage amongst supporters of marijuana policy reform.  See <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/21/this-buds-not-for-you-bee_n_732901.html?ref=fb&src=sp for the whole story.

According to a blog post published this afternoon on The Hill's website:

"The administration is clearly sending the message that they don't think it's bad to use marijuana," Smith said on Fox News. "So they're encouraging the use of marijuana. And that simply is not a good thing to do."

See: http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/120035-top-republican-obama-administration-encouraging-use-of-marijuana for the whole story.

"Marijuana is becoming more acceptable and the alcohol industry is defending its turf," said Mason Tvert, executive director of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), a non-profit organization that highlights the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol.  "The booze industry and its good friends in Washington recognize that marijuana legalization is imminent and it is fighting to maintain alcohol's status as the only legal intoxicant.  This, despite the fact that it is far more harmful than marijuana to the user and society."

SAFER and marijuana reform supporters nationwide are now calling on the congressman to explain his opposition to marijuana in light of his acceptance of campaign contributions from the alcohol industry.  According to OpenSecrets.org, his current campaign has received at least $20,000 from the beer, wine, and liquor industry, including a $10,000 donation from the National Beer Wholesalers Association, a $5,000 contribution from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, and $5,000 from Constellation Brands Premium Wine and Spirits Company.

"For Rep. Smith to accept money from the alcohol industry and then work to stifle that industry's competition is unethical and hypocritical," Tvert said.  "It's time he explained his reason for preferring adults use alcohol -- a substance whose use alone kills more than 30,000 Americans per year -- instead of marijuana, which has never resulted in a single death in history.

"Unlike marijuana, alcohol use contributes to domestic violence, sexual assaults, and other serious problems," Tvert said. "If Rep.

Smith is so concerned about public safety, why is he helping Big Alcohol drive Americans to drink?  He should be thrilled that more Americans are making the rational, safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol when they relax and recreate."

# # #

SAFER (Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation) is a national non-profit organization based in Denver and dedicated to educating the the public about the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol for the user and society.  Its social welfare lobbying arm, the SAFER Voter Education Fund, advocates for laws and policies that reflect that fact and no longer steer people toward drinking and away from making the safer choice.  For more information visit http://www.saferchoice.org/

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