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Chronicle Book Review: Reefer Movie Madness

Reefer Movie Madness: The Ultimate Stoner Film Guide, by Steven Bloom and Shirley Halperin (2010, Abrams Image Press, 336 pp., $18.95 PB)

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Even the wonkiest of drug policy reformers can't spend all their time reading policy proposals, research results, and desert-dry academic treatises, but Reefer Movie Madness is much more than a mere guilty pleasure. Penned by former High Times editor and Celebstoner.com proprietor Steve Bloom and former High Times intern turned entertainment writer Shirley Halperin, Reefer Movie Madness is not only a most excellent guide to stoner filmdom, it also maps the cultural acceptance of marijuana in America through film history.

A follow-up to the pair's well-done, comprehensive compendium of all things cannabinical, Pot Culture, Reefer Movie Madness profiles more than 700 films that are about marijuana, feature marijuana in key scenes, feature other drugs, or just plain a gas to watch stoned. The films are ranked via a five-star rating system, and the authors demonstrate exquisite taste and filmic knowledge in their rankings (meaning that their tastes agreed with mine).

They begin at the beginning, going back even before 1936's anti-pot propaganda classic Reefer Madness to note such obscure films as 1924's High on the Range, in which Cowboy Dave smokes a reefer, and 1933's International House, in which jazz legend Cab Calloway performs "Reefer Man."

But in the late 1930s, as Harry Anslinger crusaded against the demon weed, so did Hollywood. In addition to Reefer Madness, the movie industry cranked out propaganda like Marijuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), and just a handful of years later, Devil's Harvest (1942). While such films helped shape American attitudes at the time, and for decades to come, they are now the stuff of nonstop laugh fests.

While marijuana and other drug use was portrayed intermittently, and occasionally, even with some sympathy for drug users, it wasn't until the cultural revolution of the 1960s, bringing us classic stoner films like Wild in the Streets (1968) and Easy Rider (1969), that pot-smoking began to be widely portrayed as anything but deviant. And it wasn't until the late 1970s that Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke gave birth to the now ubiquitous stoner comedy genre (although Bloom and Halperin give the classic Animal House, with its single hilarious pot-smoking scene partial credit for establishing the genre, too).

By now, stoner movies and depictions of pot-smoking are everywhere, most notably, but not only, in the stoner comedy genre. Films like Half-Baked, How High, Friday, and Strange Wilderness are now being produced by mainstream production companies, and the Judd Apatow franchise alone has been responsible for numerous box office hit stoner flicks, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad, and Pineapple Express. This year's Get Him to Greek, featuring the inimitable and charismatic Russell Brand and Apatow regular Jonah Hill, was released too late for inclusion, but will certainly make the next edition.

The book is divided into sections by genre: comedy, drama, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, action, sports, music, documentaries and offers spot-on capsule reviews of more than 700 films, complete with plot summaries, star rankings, and choice quotes. Reefer Movie Madness also includes themed lists (Best Buds: Ten stony duos that take friendship to a higher level; Stoner Inventions and Innovations), celebrity Q&As, and lists of favorite stoner movies from well-known actors, directors, and musicians, including Cheech & Chong, the Trailer Park Boys, Snoop Dog, and Melissa Etheridge, among many more.

Reefer Movie Madness is a bookshelf must for pot movie fans, whether they be culture mavens or fully-baked couch potatoes. Even for veteran stoner film watchers, it contains some delicious movies you've never seen before and helps you remember long-forgotten gems. It has already vastly increased the length of my Netflix queue, and once you pick it up, the same thing is going to happen to you.

But beyond that, Reefer Movie Madness is a valuable and important contribution to charting and understanding the pop cultural role of marijuana in the past few decades. And it's a gas to read, stoned or not.

Chronicle Book Review: This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, by Anthony Papa

After decades of the war on drugs and other "tough on crime" policies, America seems finally to have begun to come to its senses. The imprisonment rate has leveled off, and we're no longer seeing year after year after year of ever-increasing numbers of people behind bars in the land of the free.

We've seen that change at the federal level, with the Fair Sentencing Act, softening of the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and Justice Department instructions to prosecutors to avoid hitting bit players with mandatory minimum sentences. We've seen that at the state level, with sentencing reforms in dozens of states leading to an actual reduction in the number of state prisoners. And we've even seen it at the local level -- the nation's system of city and county jails -- through things like marijuana decriminalization and reforms in bail practices.

That's all well and good, but we're still the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita term, with more than two million people locked up (China only has 1.5 million). Tens of thousands of them are non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian laws enacted before the fever broke -- confined not for years, but for decades -- and writing less brutal sentencing laws now isn't much help to them.

In his waning days in office, President Obama struck a bold blow for justice and made modern presidential history by granting clemency to more than 1,700 federal drug prisoners. Let's be crystal clear here: These were not pardons granted to people who had finished their sentences and long ago returned to society and now wanted their records wiped clean. Obama's commutations meant that people currently spending their lives behind prison walls walked free -- years or decades before they otherwise would have. Hundreds, mostly third time drug offenders serving life sentences, would have died in prison.

But the president can only grant pardons or commutations to people in the federal system, and the vast majority of American's prisoners are in state prisons. Each state governor holds a pardon power similar to the federal chief executive's, but it is used sparingly, some might even say stingily, and has certainly never been wielded in a mass fashion to achieve a social justice end like Obama did at the federal level.

That's a crying shame -- and a potential focus of reform organizing -- because a governor's signature can liberate a human being who not only deserves a chance to breathe the air of freedom, but who may actually make our world a better place by being in and of it instead of being locked away from it -- and us.

Ask Tony Papa. He was a young New York City family man with his own business who, short on cash, took an offer to make a few hundred bucks by delivering some cocaine back in the 1980s, when New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were still in full effect. It was a sting, and Papa got popped. Like thousands of others, the luckless he quickly entered the state's drug war gulag, sentenced to 15 years to life.

In an earlier work, 15 to Life, Papa told the story of his bust, his seeming eternity behind bars, his slammer-honed artistic talent, and how an anguished self-portrait that seemed to encapsulate the horror and madness of crushing drug prohibition resulted in some high-placed interest, followed by media attention, a public campaign on his behalf, and his release after 12 years when he was granted clemency by then-Gov. George Pataki. It is a remarkable tale of punishment, perseverance, and redemption.

And now, he's back with the rest of the story. In This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, the personable Papa tells the tale of his life after rebirth -- and makes achingly clear how the trauma of years-long incarceration lingers in the psyche of the freed. There is a clear public policy moral buried in these pages, too: Getting out of prison is only the first step, reentry into society is hard, society itself seems to make it even harder, a virtual obstacle course for people taking the baby steps of freedom, but if we as a society are smart, we will make the effort, for our own collective sake as well as out of a humanitarian impulse.

Compared to most newly freed prisoners, Papa had it good. The campaign for his release had made him connections, he could find work, he could revive his familial ties, yet still he struggled, and understandably so. When you've spent a dozen years being told what to do, freedom isn't easy.

Papa had his demons, and part of the way he fought them was by resolving not to forget the prisoners he left behind. Within a year of his release, inspired by the courageous years-long struggle of the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, those survivors of the thousands taken and killed by the military dictatorship of the 1970s, he and comic/political gadfly Randy Credico formed the New York Mothers of the Disappeared along with family members of the thousands imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.

Papa, Credico, and the Mothers played a critical role in early efforts to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws, and his tales of feckless politicians, preening celebrity intervenors, and back room double-dealing are the inside dirt on the glacial process of bringing some sanity to the state's drug laws. It ain't pretty, but reform did happen -- eventually -- and Papa got his social justice payback. If that isn't redemption-worthy, I don’t know what is.

This Side of Freedom is one part memoir, one part social history, one part heart-felt manifesto. Papa is an effective, engaging writer who tells his story in discrete episodes and has a knack for jumping from the personal to the political like a quivering quantum particle. You'll meet a range of colorful characters and experience the gamut of human emotion -- the highs, the lows, the ennui -- as you follow Papa's path.

His is one portrait of life in turn-of-the-21st Century America: mindless cruelty and brutality, mixed with racial injustice, but leavened with the will to resist. Read and ask yourself: How many other Tony Papas are out there, watching their lives tick away as they're locked in the cells, when they could be out here helping the rest of us make our world a better, more just and humane place?

Book Review: "Marijuana: A Short History" by John Hudak

Marijuana: A Short History by John Hudak (2016, Brookings Institution Press, 217 pp., $14.95 PB)

Marijuana is going mainstream, as evidenced by the spread of medical marijuana and now outright legalization, not to mention its pervasive and increasingly favorable position in popular culture. In the past 20 years, support for legalization has grown from a distinct minority position to a majority one, and now, after November's elections, more than half the states have approved medical marijuana and nearly one out of six Americans lives in a state where it is legal.

Marijuana is now also big business, with industry watchers estimating the size of the legal market at around $20 billion by 2020. There's one problem with such rosy scenarios, though: Pot remains illegal under federal law.

That's a big problem for John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution with a keen professional interest in public policy implementation, legislative-executive relations, and marijuana policy. In Marijuana: A Short History, Hudak takes marijuana legalization as pretty much a given -- provided it isn't screwed up too badly in implementation -- and sees federal marijuana prohibition largely as an obstacle to getting pot policy right.

He sketches out the strange place we now find ourselves, with a booming industry enriching state tax coffers at the same time it remains federally illegal, and a federal government largely turning a blind eye to the violations of federal law -- at least for now -- while at the same time refusing to allow that industry the banking privileges and tax breaks provided to legal businesses. Meanwhile, marijuana sellers become Chamber of Commerce members in some states and prison inmates in others.

Hudak describes the growing tension between legalization in the states and federal prohibition as challenging federal authority while also hampering the efficient functioning of the marijuana industry. In his view, we're now in a sort of "worst of both worlds" status quo:

"The resulting situation in the United States may be worse than either national legalization or national prohibition. Legal realities are loosely defined by executive branch guidance and suggestions from the administration. This guidance fails to answer important questions and oftentimes creates new ones. States are constantly asking the federal government how to deal with many of the problems they face; the answers are almost always insufficient. Members of Congress have proposed solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing states, industry actors, and consumers, but that legislation is not acted on."

"The reality is that the state of American law at the start of 2016 is absolutely untenable and is inconsistent with American principles of fairness and equal treatment. Federal officials must commit themselves to coherent, comprehensive, and sensible marijuana policy. Until they do, the system will be arbitrary and unjust, and policy will be ineffective."

Now, at the start of 2017, the tensions Hudak highlights are even more acute, and the November elections brought them to the fore. At the same time the legal recreational market quintupled in size with victories in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, the nation elected Donald Trump, whose attorney general pick, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, is an avowed foe of legalization and drug law reform in general.

Trump himself has said he favors letting the states experiment, but the billion-dollar question is whether Trump is going to set pot policy or leave it to his minions. If it's the latter, legal marijuana may be in for a bumpy ride, but even if it's the latter, that's just the political status quo.

That isn't enough for Hudak. He wants things settled at the federal level through congressional action, not left to the administrative whim of some officeholder. Whether the next few years is going to bring us any closer to Hudak's prescription for pot policy perfection is an open question, and it's sure to be contested political terrain.

Hudak raises the right questions about marijuana's future, but make no mistake, Marijuana: A Short History is by no mean all wonkery. After all, Hudak is writing a history, and he does just that in a concise and lively manner, concentrating on the 20th Century in the US, a period that saw the long arc of marijuana prohibition peak before the decline it now faces in the early years of the 21st Century. Of special interest is his section on the rise of a successfully reform movement, as he zeroes in on the people and strategies that made it happen.

Okay, Marijuana: A Short History is pretty wonky. It's serious stuff with a serious purpose: getting us down the path to a sane and effective marijuana policy nationwide. People with an interest in marijuana and marijuana legalization need to be thinking about these things, and Hudak is going to reward a serious reader. And he isn't going to make you slog through 400 pages of academic prose along the way. Read it; it'll make you think.

Book Review: The Newbie's Guide to Cannabis and the Industry

Chris Conrad and Jeremy Daw, The Newbie's Guide to Cannabis and the Industry (2016, Reset.Me Press, 249 pp., $19.95 HB)

Legal marijuana is a big deal and it's only getting bigger. It's already a billion dollar-plus industry in the medical marijuana and legal states, and with California and a handful of other states poised to go legal in November, it's only going to get bigger.

With growing legality comes growing acceptance. Marijuana is insinuating itself deep within popular culture, and more and more people are getting interested. Pot use is on the increase among adults, especially seniors. In fact, it seems to be gaining popularity with just about everybody -- except kids.

Some folks have been pot people for decades. They've been smoking it, growing it, selling it, agitating for its legalization. They have an intimate understanding of the plant and the issues around it. Still, there are many, many more people who are not cannabis aficionados, but are becoming curious about marijuana or the pot business.

Will marijuana ease my aches and pains? If I start smoking pot, won't I get addicted? How do you grow the stuff? Can I make a million bucks growing weed? How do I start a pot business?

Chris Conrad and Jeremy Daw are well-positioned to provide some answers. Conrad has been around cannabis since forever -- he's a certified expert witness on marijuana cultivation, he curated the Amsterdam Hemp Museum back in the 1980s, he formed the Business Alliance for Cannabis Hemp in the 1980s, too, and hes9;s been politically active in California (and national) pot politics the whole time -- and Daw is the up-and-coming publisher of The Leaf Online.

With The Newbie's Guide to Cannabis and the Industry, the pair of pot pros provides a compendium of marijuana-related information sure to be invaluable to interested novices and likely to hold some hidden treasures for even the most grizzled veteran of the weed wars.

The guide begins with a quick but detailed look at cannabis botany before shifting gears from the natural sciences to the social ones with a thumbnail history of pot prohibition and the last half-century's increasingly successful efforts to undo it. Conrad and Daw take up through political developments into this year, noting the spread of medical marijuana, with outright legalization now following in its footsteps.

And they make one critically important point here (and repeatedly in the business sections of the book): Despite how swimmingly legalization may be going in Colorado and Washington and Alaska and Oregon, pot remains illegal under federal law. All it would take is a new administration hostile to marijuana in the White House and a new memo from the Justice Department to bring the entire edifice crashing to the ground.

That's certainly something for would be ganjapreneurs to ponder, but it should also behoove the rest of us to remember that the job of freeing the weed remains unfinished business. As long as federal marijuana prohibition remains on the books, the prospect of a reefer rollback remains. Admittedly, the prospect seems unlikely: We are pretty far down the path of acceptance in the early legalizing states, and any return to harsh federal enforcement could have the paradoxical result of criminalizing or at least freezing state-level taxation and regulation while leaving pot legal, untaxed, and unregulated at the state level. While the federal government could try to block the states from acting to tax or regulate marijuana, if not in court then by going after the businesses, it can't force states to make it illegal again. It could attempt to enforce federal prohibition laws, but it doesn't have enough DEA agents to effectively do that, especially in states with home growing.

Conrad and Daw also delve more deeply into the botany of marijuana, addressing questions that will face consumers -- edibles or smokables? Indica or sativa? High THC or high CBD? -- as well as drilling down into the precise roles played by cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids (oh, my!) in creating marijuana highs, tastes, smells, and colors.

It's worth taking a moment to note the high production values of The Newbie's Guide. The book has an illustrated cover (not dust jacket) and is filled with with hundreds of color photographs of the plant, its users, marijuana production and sales, and more. It's also printed on glossy, high-quality paper stock. This thing isn't going to turn yellow in a few years.

Conrad and Daw devote a large chunk of the book to getting in the pot business or, more accurately, what people need to be thinking about if they're thinking about getting into the pot business. They accurately lay out the obstacles -- legal, political, financial -- awaiting anyone hoping to navigate the nascent industry, and they explore the manifold opportunities within the industry.

As they make clear, there's more to the pot business than growing and selling weed (although they certainly devote ample material to covering those basics) and there are employment and business opportunities far beyond growing, trimming, or budtending. Marijuana is spinning off all sorts of ancillary businesses, from edibles and cannabis oil manufacture to advertising and public relations to paraphernalia production to business services and beyond.

The Newbie's Guide is a most excellent handbook for marijuana consumers and potential consumers. It should also be required reading for anyone who is thinking about making a career in the industry. There is money to be lost as well as money to be made, and Conrad and Daw could well help stop you from throwing good money down a rat hole.

Perhaps as important, they demand that people wanting to get into the business do a thorough self-examination. Just why, exactly, do you want in? What is it you seek? Honest answers to those questions will help people make the right choices for themselves. If you're seriously thinking about using marijuana or getting into the business, you should read this book.

Review Essay: Drugs and the Mutation of Criminality in Latin America

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Ioan Grillo, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America (2016, Bloomsbury Press, 377 pp., $28.00 HB)

Misha Glenny, Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio (2016, Alfred E. Knopf, 293 pp., $27.95 HB)

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014, Riverhead Press, 688 pp., $28.95 HB)

Beginning in the 1960s, following the success of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, popular guerrilla movements rose up across Latin America as masses of people revolted against poverty, inequality, and dictatorial rule, and between then and now, hundreds of thousands were killed in the conflicts that followed, usually with the US on the counter-revolutionary side. Now, with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC set to put down their guns in the wake of drawn out negotiations with the Colombian government, the last remnant of armed insurgency in the region is about to come to an end.

But the violence hasn't stopped -- it has only been displaced from the sphere of politics to the sphere of criminality. As Ioan Grillo notes early on in Gangster Warlords, his sterling reportage on the leaders of the powerful of Latin American crime organizations, more than a million people have died in the criminal conflicts (and state response to them) around these groupings.

The so-called cartels in Mexico, their brethren in Colombia, the "posses" of Jamaica, the criminal "commands" of Brazil, and the transnational gangsters of Mara Salvatrucha are all in Grillo's sights as examples of a new, and deeply disturbing, form of crime, largely unmoored from ideological struggle yet acting as parallel power or alternative to the state. Whether it's the government yards of Trenchtown, the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo, the mean streets of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador, or the fields of western Mexico, national governments have effectively ceded control of huge segments of the population to criminal overlords.

In Rio de Janiero alone, more than two million people live in the favelas, the unsanctioned, unsupported, and poverty stricken communities crawling up the hillsides above the Copacabana and the city's other glorious beaches. There, the presence of the state is almost nil, except for the occasional intrusions of police or military raiding parties, the formal power is in residents' associations, but the real power is almost always the crime overlord.

And bizarrely enough, those Brazilian crime lords are as strong and organized as they are because of a fateful decision by the military dictatorship back in the 1970s, when the generals, in all their wisdom, decided to punish imprisoned leftist guerrillas by putting them in the general prison population with Rio's criminal masterminds. Grillo interviews some of the hard men behind what became the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), the largest and most powerful of the criminal gangs, unraveling that fateful decision decades ago and unspooling the consequences that still play out today.

The imprisoned guerrillas imbued the criminals with a Marxian social critique and their habits of political organization, and the criminals applied those lessons well in building their organizations. The nascent alliance between the left and the lumpenproletariat fell apart when the ex-guerrillas won amnesties and began political careers (they were white), leaving their darker hued criminal compatriots to their own devices. Now, all that's left is the organizational ability, along with some limited social solidarity in the form of Robin Hoodism -- stealing from the rich to give to the poor, at least to the degree that the commands provide services and goods to the poor in their districts.

Relations between the commands and the state are complex, intricate, and finely balanced -- or else there could be real trouble. While generally content to be left to run their affairs in their favela strongholds, the commands have repeatedly, and spectacularly, shown they have the ability to bring serious mayhem down from the hills to the "asphalt," as the poor refer to the thriving city that surrounds them.

When Sao Paulo's First Capital Command, the largest criminal organization in the country, grew unhappy with the government -- or more precisely, with the police -- in 2006, it unleashed a wave of attacks that unnerved the city, with assaults on police stations and buses burned on city streets. It did the same thing again six years later, complaining that cowardly police were killing its members and responding by executing one or two police officers every day for a month until suddenly and without explanation stopping. Maybe the command figured the cops had gotten the message.

As Grillo reports, when the commands killed 139 police in a burst of mayhem, the whole world took horrified note. The more than 500 killings committed by police in the days that followed didn't make the global news.

It's worth mentioning that the number of killings by trigger-happy police in the US has risen to the level of national political discourse, American cops are like school crossing guards compared to their bloody-handed brethren in places like Brazil and Jamaica. Indeed, as here in the US, the thuggery of the state's agents leads to festering hatreds and their being seen as if they were an occupying army, only more so.

Grillo reports similar intricate relationships between the criminals and the state in Jamaica, where the leaders of the neighborhood "posses" in tough neighborhoods like West Kingston become intermediaries between residents and the state, which, again, is generally absent except in the form of the police and military. Posse leaders and their paramilitarized gangs work with competing political factions, who cede effective responsibility and control for votes at election time.

In all the cases, the trade in prohibited drugs is providing the oxygen that the criminal organizations breathe. Brazil's favelas are the ground zero of the retail cocaine trade in the world's second largest cocaine market, where the nice, white, middle-class kids of the city go to score and dance the night away at favela funk balls. In Jamaica, the neighborhood gangs of the 1970s metastasized into powerful and deadly posses with international reach thanks to the cocaine trade. And in Mexico and Central America, it is again the cocaine traffic that has enabled what were once ma-and-pa smuggling operations and neighborhood street gangs to morph into the cruelly violent cartels of today.

Grillo, along with policymakers throughout the hemisphere, doesn't know quite what to make of this phenomenon. These groups are not simply gangs, and they're not guerrillas. Grillo calls them "criminal militias," which is as good a phrase as any, but simply naming them isn't making it any easier for governments to figure out how to deal with them.

Journalist Misha Glenny, another veteran of the global crime scene, drills down a bit deeper in Nemesis, his account of Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes ("Nem"), a former favela crime boss now ensconced for the next few decades in a Brazilian supermax prison. Glenny focuses on a single, famous favela, Rocinha, nestled on a hillside above the Copacabana, and home to 200,000 people with a birds-eye view of the riches beyond their grasp.

Like Grillo, Glenny does extensive interviews, including hours' worth with Nem over a period of years, as well as favela residents, gang members, police, politicians, and analysts, and he is able to shed considerable light on the shadowy interconnections between the powers that be in the favela and the various police forces, most of which are thuggish and corrupt, as well as the politicians that reach out to favela voters at election time.

Along the way, he opens a window on the class and race stratification pervasive in Brazil, but also shows how the gang lords make the favelas work for their residents. It is the gang lords who donate food and clothing to the poorest, provide security for all (at the price of outbreaks of exemplary violence aimed at lawbreakers like rapists and murderers), and even take over the administration of "justice" in the areas they control.

Nem's story is a classic favela crime lord tale. Born poor, he quit school in order to earn his keep, got work in the legitimate service economy, got married, had a child, and was on the path to the straight and narrow when his daughter's illness forced him to turn to the local crime boss to pay for her treatment. That led to working for the boss to pay off his debt, and that in turn led to his march to the top (however briefly) of the criminal command.

Unlike many of his peers, who were uneducated and largely uninterested in conventional life, Nem had management and accounting skills, and the kind of temperament that led him to negotiate conflict when possible and avoid indiscriminate violence. In an ideal world, he might have been a Payless Shoe Store manager. Instead he became a crime lord.

The reporting from Glenny and Grillo is mind-bending and terrifying, rich in detail and nuance, and both books come highly recommended. But neither seem to fully confront the role of drug prohibition within poverty-stricken, highly unequal countries. Grillo at least devotes a few pages at the end of his book to denouncing the drug war, but Glenny seems to just take it, and the social injustices of late Latin American capitalism, as givens. He shines a bright line of them, but really has nothing to say about them. That's too bad.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is not reportage, it is fiction, thinly-veiled, but is included here because fine literature can educate and illuminate as well as the finest journalism. Kingston-born Marlon James won the prestigious Booker Prize for this sprawling, horrifying, and intensely rich novel centered around the attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley in 1976.

James treads some of the same ground as Grillo, who reported on the Shower Posse and its leader, "Jim Brown," whose son, Dudus Coke, was the object of a military raid on the Tivoli Gardens shantytown that left 73 dead in 2010. "Jim Brown," Dudus Coke, and other real life posse leaders are barely fictionalized in James' work, which follows their ascent from local bosses to fearsome international crime bosses thanks to Colombian cocaine.

But where Grillo is limited to factual reporting, James can soar, and soar he does. His writing takes us deep into the minds of posse gunmen, their bosses, and the politicians that embrace them from a safe distance, laying bare the machinations and entanglements that seemingly compromise everybody on the island. He immerses the reader in the political intrigues, including the involvement of the CIA in a Cold War struggle against left-leaning Michael Manley and on behalf of his rival Edward Seaga, he illuminates the role and stature of Marley as cultural icon and political focal point, and he lays bare more than enough of the brutal nastiness of life for poor Jamaicans.

But the attempted murder of Marley, who was seen as a Manley supporter ("Rasta don't work for no CIA," he sang), by gunmen working for a posse leader allied with Seaga, and the fates of those who ordered and carried out the failed hit, are only part one of the novel. In part two, James follows the posses from their two-bit shantytown kingdoms to their rise as global, and brutal, players in the burgeoning US cocaine markets of the 1980s and 1990s.

It isn't pretty. In fact, the craziness (much of drug induced, some of it deprivation-induced) and the wanton brutality, the glaring sexism and homophobia of Jamaican yardie life can make for some difficult reading. But you don't learn about ugly things by only looking at pretty ones.

"Seriously, Alex, prison library serious to fuck," says a posse leader imprisoned in the US. "Me go to plenty library in Jamaica and not one have book like the number of books me see in Rikers. One of them is this book Middle Passage. Some coolie write it, V.S. Naipaul. Brethren, the man say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can't even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It so ugly it shouldn't produce no pretty sentence, ever."

Marcus James can write some pretty sentences, but they serve to make the ugly even uglier. And the reality, whether it's Kingston or Rio or San Salvador or Michoacan, is pretty ugly. Grillo, Glenny, and James don't let us turn our eyes away from the festering sores, and that's a good thing. We need to try to understand what is going on. Because it's crazy down there.

Chronicle AM: WVA Welfare Drug Test Bill Advances, ME Voters Want Drug Decrim, More... (2/9/16)

Medical marijuana bills get filed not only in Iowa, but also Australia and Greece, a new poll shows enlightened drug policy attitudes among Maine voters, Republican US senators hold competing events for and against sentencing reform legislation, and more.

Medical marijuana is seeing action at statehouses in the US and in foreign capitals. (wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Medical Marijuana Bill Reemerges. A bill that would allow terminally ill patients to use medical marijuana has come out of hibernation in the House. After months on the sidelines, the bill, House Bill 307, was approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday on a 9-2 vote. It now needs one more committee vote before heading for the House floor.

Iowa Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Rep. Peter Cownie (R-West Des Moines) Tuesday filed a bill that would make it legal to grow medical marijuana, produce CBD cannabis oil, and create dispensaries. The bill is not yet on the legislative website. Republican lawmakers last year killed similar legislation.

Drug Policy

Maine Voters Support Drug Decriminalization, Not Punitive Drug Policies, Poll Finds. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of voters support decriminalizing drug possession, according to a new poll conducted by Public Policy Polling. More than seven out of 10 (71%) said substantially reducing incarceration rates was important to them. The poll comes as the state's Tea Party governor, Paul Le Page (R), is pushing legislation that would roll back reforms passed last year that make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

West Virginia Senate Passes Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The Senate overwhelmingly (32-2) approved Senate Bill 6, which would create a three-year pilot program to drug test applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program if state employees have "reasonable suspicion" they are using drugs. "Reasonable suspicion" can be triggered by applicants demonstrating "qualities indicative of substance abuse" or having been arrested on a drug charge in the past five years. The bill now goes to the House of Delegates.

Law Enforcement

Massachusetts Bill Would Let Users Turn in Drugs Without Fear of Punishment. Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante (D-Gloucester) has filed a bill that would allow addicts seeking treatment to turn in unwanted drugs without the threat of prosecution. A person "who, in good faith, enters a police station and seeks assistance or treatment for a drug-related addiction, or is the subject of a good faith request for such assistance or treatment, shall not be charged or prosecuted for possession of a controlled substance" if the evidence for such a charge was gained as a result of seeking treatment. The bill is before the Joint Judiciary Committee.

Sentencing

Republican Senators and Law Enforcement Leaders Rally for Federal Sentencing Reform Bill. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) joined law enforcement leaders today for a Capitol Hill briefing in support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123). The briefing, supported by Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, comes the same day two other Republican senators, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, hosted an event to oppose the bill.

International

Australian Government Files Medical Marijuana Legislation. The federal government today filed legislation to allow the cultivation of marijuana for medical or scientific purposes. The bill would create a national scheme to regulate cultivation for such purposes.

Greek Lawmakers File Medical Marijuana Bill. Twenty members of the governing Syriza Party Monday filed legislation to legalize marijuana for medical and pharmaceutical purposes. "The proven beneficial effect in cases of especially dangerous diseases, such as glaucoma, cancer, epilepsy, anorexia nervosa, malignancies make the legalization of cannabis as medicine -- already used in many developed countries -- imperative. The criminalization of cannabis use has resulted in leading many patients and their families to acquire cannabis through illegal channels, something that entails substantial loss of revenue for the State, organized crime activities and pushing patients to resort illegal activities," the lawmakers argued.

Chronicle Book Review: "Stoned" by Dr. David Casarett

Stoned: A Doctor's Case for Medical Marijuana, by Dr. David Casarett (2015, Current Press, 289 pp., $27.95 HB)

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Medical marijuana is now legal in about half the US (even more if you include those states that have now passed limited CBD cannabis oil laws), but it still remains a controversial medical treatment. Many people still assume that it's a joke or, more nefariously, a charade designed to pave the way for the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Dr. David Casarett was one of them. He admits in the opening pages of Stoned: A Doctor's Case for Medical Marijuana that that he thought it was joke and that when he talked about medical marijuana as a treatment, he always mentally added quotation marks around "treatment." But in those same opening pages, he is introduced to "Caleb," a 40-something man from Michigan suffering from rectal cancer who has traveled to Colorado in search of medical marijuana and who swears by it.

"Caleb" has a shelf full of prescription medications, including heavy opiates, but he tells Casarett he doesn't want to use them because of the side effects and that marijuana works better at relieving his pain and making him tolerable to be around. The doctor has found himself a real life, bona fide medical marijuana patient.

But Casarett, a physician, researcher, and tenured faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, knows that anecdotal evidence isn't the same as good science. Ideally, "Caleb" would have been in a peer-reviewed double-blind clinical study along with hundreds of thousands of other patients. Casarett wants the science to be there, but it isn't yet, and he examines the reasons for that.

One of them is political. For years, the DEA has been an obstacle to research on marijuana's medical applications, all the while claiming that marijuana has "no accepted medical use." And with the DEA blocking the doorway, that means funding and implementing medical marijuana studies is more difficult.

But another reason is the nature of marijuana itself. It's a plant, not a synthesized chemical, and it contains hundreds of cannabinoid compounds. Western medical science will want to tease out and test each of those compounds in isolation, but it also needs to deal with the synergistic effects of the cannabinoids on each other. And then there are terpenes, the organic compounds that create essential oils, and are linked to psychoactive and medicinal effects as well. Western science doesn't want to deal with whole plants, but if it's going to address medical marijuana, it's going to have to.

As Casarett undertakes his year-long search for the truth about the plant and its medical applications, he takes the reader on a sometimes surprising, sometimes outright amusing tour of medical marijuana. We meet a young couple who turned to it to treat their two-year-old daughter's seizures, a young man who used it to deal with PTSD after a violent assault, an Israeli nursing home volunteer using it to treat anxiety and confusion in patients with dementia.

We also meet leading scientists and researchers in the field, such as Dr. Donald Abrams, the San Francisco-based oncologist, who warns Casarett of quackery surrounding claims that marijuana can cure cancer. While there are some promising research results, the science just isn't there yet, and when hope and hucksterism collide, the results can be not only sad, but tragic.

Casarett comes away convinced that marijuana does indeed have proven medical uses -- he cites neuropathic pain and nausea -- as well as conditions that may well be helped by it, such as insomnia, PTSD, or the symptoms of dementia or Parkinson's, but that it also has dangers. Casarett worries about marijuana's addictive potential, which he calls "substantial," and he think marijuana impairs drivers as much as alcohol does. He also notes the danger of psychotic episodes or, possibly, schizophrenia, as a result of marijuana use.

Even-handed observer that he is, he notes that the danger of pot addiction or the miniscule chance of developing psychosis is "trivial" with patients with serious, life-threatening and/or terminal medical conditions, but he also notes that many patients are young people not suffering from life-threatening conditions, and the long-term dangers are worth watching.

One of Casarett's most interesting contributions is to call for marijuana to be treated not like a medicine, but like an herbal remedy: "It's essentially plant-based stuff with numerous active and inactive ingredients, only some of which we understand," he writes. That's not a fatal flaw, he argues, pointing to the widespread use of herbal remedies like black cohosh, Echinacea, Gingko Biloba, and St. John's Wart.

He also calls for marijuana's cannabinoids to be placed in Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. This approach seems eminently sensible. Leave the raw plant alone, schedule the chemical compounds. That way, marijuana can be medicalized without leaving non-medicinal consumers looking for a prescription to get high. With Stoned, Dr. Casarett has embarked on a knowledge-seeking journey, and he has found much to mull over. Readers who are game enough to join him are going to learn some things and have a good time along the way. Highly recommended.

Chronicle Book Review: Mexico on the Brink

Hidden Dangers: Mexico on the Brink of Disaster by Robert Joe Stout (2014, Sunbury Press, 210 pp., $16.95 PB)

Today is the official 104th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. The uprising that began then lasted for nearly two decades and by the time it was over, nearly two million Mexicans were dead, and the country was changed forever. That revolution overthrew a sclerotic, encrusted dictatorship that advanced the country materially and brought it to the brink of the modern era, but which ignored the interests of the vast majority of Mexicans.

Are we about to see a repeat? That's probably premature, but it's notable that authorities in Mexico City have canceled the official commemorative parade set for today, afraid of trouble breaking out. There has already been trouble in Mexico City today, anyway -- with masked demonstrators attempted to block access to the international airport -- so that decision may well be a prudent one.

What is motivating the protests today -- and for nearly the last two months -- is the disappearance (and almost certain murder) of 43 radical students from a provincial teachers' college in the south central state of Guerrero. It seems clear that the students and their threats of demonstrations were seen as a threat by Maria de los Angeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca. Pineda, who has been identified as a leader of the Guerreros Unidos organized crime group (commonly referred to as cartels), is believed to have ordered Iguala municipal police to "take care of" the unruly students.

According to a version of events delivered by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Karam Murillo, Iguala police shot up the commandeered public buses the students were riding in (commandeering buses is not unusual in political protests), killing some of the students on the spot. The remaining students were then allegedly turned over by Iguala police to Guerreros Unidos gang members, who, according to Karam, killed them all, burned their bodies, chopped them to bits, and threw them in a river.

Of course, it took Karam a month to make that announcement, and in the meantime, anger over the disappearances grew by the day. Demonstrators attacked and burnt part of the state capitol complex in Chilpancingo; they attacked and burnt municipal buildings in Iguala; they fought pitched battles with police on the road to the Acapulco airport. And the demonstrations and solidarity protests are spreading.

This is a brutal scandal that has shaken even brutal scandal-plagued Mexico. Federal authorities have now arrested the mayoral couple, along with dozens of police men and gang members (some are undoubtedly both). The governor of Guerrero has been forced to resign. And President Enrique Nieto Pena and his government are now besieged, even though the mayor and the governor belonged to another political party.

This may be the landmine that sets off a long pent-up social explosion south of the border. I use the word "landmine" deliberately, for that is the precise term used by long-time journalist and current Oaxaca resident Robert Stout in his new book, Hidden Dangers. Although it appears to have been largely written before Pena Nieto took office nearly two years ago, it seems remarkably prescient.

In Hidden Dangers, Stout identifies several festering -- and interconnected -- problems facing Mexico, the result of ongoing economic and political changes.Looming large among the potential landmines are emigration, the war on drugs, rising popular political movements of resistance, official corruption and impunity, and increasing environmental degradation.

With the case of the missing 43 students, Mexico is stepping on two of those landmines: the war on drugs and the problem of official complicity and corruption. As Stout makes clear, Mexico's drug corporations (he never uses the word "cartels") have thrived in an atmosphere of violence and corruption and official complicity. I wouldn't say that drug money has corrupted Mexico's institutions because they have been deeply corrupted for years, as Stout illustrates throughout the book, but it has deepened the corruption and blurred the line between organized crime and state power.

What Stout has to say about the drug cartels and the counterproductive policies adopted on both sides of the border to stop them is probably not new to regular readers of these pages. Through violence and cold, hard cash, the cartels manage to suborn security forces, elected officials, and legitimate businesses alike. And heavy-handed, militaristic attempts to quash them, especially with an army that seems to have no notion of human rights, has only resulted in more violence and more mistrust of government.

But it is complicated, and looking at Mexico solely through the prism of its war on drugs is too narrow a focus to get a good grasp on the country's realities. Mexico's drug cartel problem doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is part and parcel of a deeper social and political malaise, which, in Stout's view, is related to the country's authoritarian, unresponsive government and its inability or unwillingness to address the country's aching concerns.

And it's not just the PRI, the party that emerged from the Revolution to govern the country as "the perfect dictatorship" until the election of Coca Cola executive Vicente Fox in 2000. One of Stout's contributions to our understanding is his explication of the authoritarian character that defines all political parties in Mexico. Whether it’s the PRI or the rightist PAN or the leftist PRD, all have adapted the same top-down, strongman politics that characterized the PRI in its heyday.

It is worth noting that the mayor of Iguala and his wife are members of the PRD, which is a sad reflection on the Mexican left. But Mexicans don't need to read Stout's book to understand that the same rot grips all the parties, and that's part of the reason even the PRIista Pena Nieto is feeling the heat over the Iguala disappearances. The problem is systemic, Mexicans understand this, and that's why they're so angrily taking to the streets right now.

Hidden Dangers does a very good job of tying together the disparate "landmines" facing Mexico right now. Especially for readers who have approached the country primarily through the lens of drug policy, it is a welcome opening of perspective. And, at only a bit more than 200 pages, it's a relatively quick read, packed with information and plenty to ponder. Check it out. 

Chronicle Book Review: To End the War on Drugs

To End the War on Drugs: A Guide for Politicians, the Press, and Public by Dean Becker (2014, DTN Media, 340 pp., $19.95 PB)

Dean Becker is on a crusade. As I write these words, the Houston-based activist, advocate, and journalist is in Washington, DC, preparing for a Tuesday press conference in which he, along with other drug reform advocates, will announce a "Summer Reading Assignment" for Congress, the executive branch, the Supreme Court, and the governors of the 50 states. The assignment is to read his new book, To End the War on Drugs.

(Just last week, Becker put out a special "Policy-makers edition" of the book for this purpose.)

Becker is convinced that if the politicians just understood how horribly wrong-headed and misguided drug prohibition is, they would see the error of their ways and repent. I'm not sure I share his trust in the power of truth to overcome hide-bound thought processes and entrenched interests, but To End the War on Drugs is chock-full of argument and information that will be of great use to anyone seeking an understanding of how far off-the-rails our prohibitionist drug policies have taken us.

To End the War on Drugs is a compilation (and, hopefully, not the culmination) of Becker's 15 years in the trenches of what I call drug reform movement journalism. By that I mean reporting that seeks to accurately portray the effects of drug prohibition as well as the battles to change the drug laws, but which is informed by a certain editorial perspective. That perspective is that the drug war is a disaster.

When I first started covering the drug war for the Chronicle 13 years ago, I was almost alone in providing systematic coverage. There was High Times, but there weren't the dozens of marijuana-related magazines and hundreds of pot-related blogs that there are now. There wasn't much interest in marijuana reform in the mainstream media, let alone much concern about prison overpopulation, racism, and law enforcement militarization. The blogosphere was in its infancy. It was a pretty lonely beat, but Dean Becker was there.

He's been at it since 1999, creating his own movement journalism version of a media empire, beginning with the Drug Truth Network's Cultural Baggage radio shows broadcast from Houston's Pacifica radio station, which currently airs on around a hundred stations, and now including the Unvarnished Truth TV program. At the same time, Becker has also been an activist, working with the Drug Policy Forum of Texas and once heading Houston NORML.

The words of those Becker interviewed for the programs form the bulk of To End the Drug War. The book contains excerpts from interviews with more than a hundred people involved in the drug war or in ending it, including politicians, cops, lawyers, judges, researchers, scientists, and even other journalists (including yours truly, whose comments on the Mexican drug war a few years ago warranted a few pages). There is plenty of ammunition in there for folks seeking to demolish drug prohibition.

And that's exactly what Becker wants to do. He makes no bones about it. The interview excerpts make up the bulk of the book, but they are divided into various topics, with Becker providing an introductory page or two for each topic, and that's when Dean gets to shine. Journalists are usually doing the listening, not the talking -- watch out when we get a chance to say what's actually on our minds!

In his mini-essays, Becker makes it crystal clear that his mission, his obsession, his over-riding goal, is to drive a stake through the heart of the drug war. His is a demand for freedom and justice, and he is happy to leave the hesitations, the equivocations, and the qualifications to others. And he doesn't pull a lot of punches.

"Incrementalism" is, in Becker's view, a trap, a detour, a diversion. Drug prohibition, with all its horrors, has gone on more than long enough, and half-measures like drug decriminalization are not sufficient to end the evil. It is time to quit screwing around and end the drug war, he writes.

Similarly, while of course Becker wants marijuana legalization -- and he wants it now! -- he also understands that the drug war doesn't end with weed. It isn't white pot smokers who are filling our prisons, and legalizing weed isn't going to empty them out. It's going to take actually ending drug prohibition. Incremental measures such as sentencing reforms -- while a blessed relief to the victims of the drug war -- aren't going to end the injustice.

When it comes to drug prohibition, Becker is an absolutist. And I don't think that's a bad thing. To End the Drug War is his cri de couer. It deserves to be widely read, not only by those seeking ammunition to reinforce their policy positions on the drug war, but by those decision-makers and opinion-shapers at whom it is aimed.

Chronicle Book Review: Hemp Bound

Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution by Doug Fine (2014, Chelsea Green Publishers, 145 pp., $17.50 PB)

Hemp shouldn't have anything to do with drug policy. It's a cannabis sub-species low in THC so it doesn't get you high, but impressive as an industrial agriculture crop, one with uses in a broad and ever-increasing range of activities. The applications are numerous, and farmers in countries around the world, including just across the border in Canada, are making a living growing for an ever-expanding market, both here in the US and abroad.

Drug War Chronicle shouldn't be writing about hemp any more than it should be writing about corn or flax or soybeans. This should be the stuff of rural radio station farm shows and county agricultural extension office pamphlets.

But here we are -- because in what is arguably the single stupidest manifestation of the war on drugs, and the war on marijuana in particular, our farmers can't grow it. And that's because the DEA cannot be convinced to change its boneheaded position that hemp is marijuana. In fact, it even took getting slapped down by a federal appeals court to force the DEA to allow hemp products -- oil and seeds, fibers, biofuels -- to be imported into the country.

Still, the ban on US domestic hemp production is hurting American farmers, American agriculture, and the American economy. Farmers in North Dakota can stare across that imaginary line in the prairie and see their Canadian counterparts pocketing $250 an acre in what is a billion-dollar a year industry north of the border. Meanwhile, the Chinese are now years ahead of us in the tech for "cottonizing" hemp; making it a soft, desirable fiber.

All that's standing in the way is the DEA. North Dakota is among 13 states that have already passed laws defining hemp as distinct from marijuana and removing barriers to its production. And now, with the recent passage of the federal farm bill complete with a hemp amendment authorizing universities and agriculture departments in those 13 states to produce hemp for research purposes, hemp is about to bust out of the gate.

It's not quite there yet. That's going to take the DEA having a change of heart -- fat chance -- or, increasingly more likely, an act of Congress. There are hemp bills in both Houses this session, and while I would be surprised if they passed this year, it's coming. It's coming both because of rapidly changing attitudes about marijuana and because it is just too damned stupid to shoot ourselves in the foot any longer by letting everybody else but us grow this valuable agricultural commodity.

And Doug Fine is here to cheer it on. The veteran journalist (and New Mexico goat farmer with an organic bent) came to hemp the way many of us have -- through marijuana -- as he researched his third book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution. Now, with Hemp Bound, he's embraced an enthusiastic new role as an apostle of weed's country cousin. He's taken up the mantle of Jack Herer, but with more rigorous scientific backing, and while he doesn't want to shout out "Hemp will save the world!" one gets the definite sense that he thinks it's really going to help.

And he's done the research to back his claims. Fine interviews people in all aspects of the hemp industry, from Canadian farmers, scientists, and government officials to a Denver hemp-powered limo driver, a Dutchman whose company manufactures hemp fiber panels for the European luxury car market, and a Brit whose company uses hemp as a building material. The extent of the global hemp industry is truly eye-opening, and Fine is very seriously urging us here in the US to quit screwing around and get on the bandwagon.

Hemp Bound is not only informative and exciting, it's a fun read. Fine writes with passion, verve, and humor, and a sharp eye for bullshit. The chapters are fact-filled, but short, and are interspersed with interviews with the various players. And he gets bonus style points for managing to use the word "Saskatchewanian" (let that roll off your tongue), although there are style points foregone by using "separate the wheat from the chaff" instead of a hempier "separate the bast from the hurd" (if that's the correct analog; I defer to the true hemp experts here).

Mostly, Hemp Bound is a plea for us to take advantage of this plant. Fine waxes missionary over its multiple applications -- as he notes, a Popular Science article from the 1930s cited 25,000 industrial uses -- which I like to simplify and summarize as "The Three Fs" -- food, fiber, and fuel. And, if Fine and the people he talks to are correct, he's got good reason to be enthusiastic. With hemp, one can do good (by producing healthy, sustainable products with few nasty inputs and reducing reliance on petroleum products) and do well (make some money) at the same time.

But Hemp Bound is also an introduction to hemp and a how-to manual for American farmers thinking about making the leap. I come from an agricultural state. I know real live farmers. They are skeptical and tend to smirk at hippies, but they can also look around their acreages and see the ditch weed. Guys who are struggling to make a living with a thousand acres of corn and soybeans may be amenable to hemp if they think they can make a go of it. The profit is only $250 an acre, but when you have a thousand acres, that adds up, and farmers can count.

Fine speaks directly to these guys, some of whom are going to be the pioneers in America's next hemp boom. He can talk the talk that farmers talk. I think Hemp Bound needs to get in the hands of a lot of farmers, and I've made arrangements to see that it gets to a couple I know in central South Dakota. It also needs to get in the hands of legislators, state and university ag departments, and anyone else interested in starting our hemp revolution. We have some catching up to do, and Hemp Bound is our handbook.

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