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Administration Medical Marijuana Memo Causes Dismay, Anger [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #691)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

The medical marijuana movement is reeling after the Obama Justice Department released a memo last week declaring that it might prosecute large-scale medical marijuana cultivation operations and dispensaries even in states where they are operating in compliance with state laws. Advocates reacted with dismay and disappointment, even as they plotted strategies about what to do next.

President Obama is losing friends in the medical marijuana community. (image from
The memo, written by US Deputy Attorney General James Cole, "clarifies" the October 2009 memo from then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden that told federal prosecutors not to focus their resources on patients and providers in compliance with state laws. The earlier memo gave some substance to President Obama's campaign promise not to persecute medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal.

But after the 2009 memo, federal officials watched aghast as a veritable medical marijuana cultivation and dispensary boom took off in places such as Colorado and Montana, where dispensaries went from near zero to hundreds of operations, and as localities in California began considering huge commercial grows. The Justice Department responded with increased federal raids -- now at twice the rate of the Bush administration, according to Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy organization -- and earlier this year, sent threatening letters from US Attorneys to governors and legislators in states considering or implementing medical marijuana distribution programs.

Those letters "are entirely consistent with the October 2009 memorandum," Cole argued in last week's memo. "The Department of Justice is committed to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in all states. Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime that provides a significant source of revenue to large scale criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels," Cole continued.

Noting that "some of these jurisdictions have considered approving the cultivation of large quantities of marijuana, or broadening the regulation and taxation of the substance," Cole reiterated the Ogden memo's message that "it is likely not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or their caregivers."

He then took care to narrowly define the term "caregiver," which is commonly applied to people growing medical marijuana for authorized patients. "The term 'caregiver' as used in the memorandum meant just that: individuals providing care to individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses, not commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana."

Cole then went on to write that it is not the Obama administration's position that has changed, but facts on the ground. "There has, however, been an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes. For example, within the past 12 months, several jurisdictions have considered or enacted legislation to authorize multiple large-scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers. Some of these planned facilities have revenue projections of millions of dollars based on the planned cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants," he wrote.

The 2009 memo "was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law," Cole continued. "Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law... Those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds of such activity may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes and other federal financial laws."

It didn't take long for the medical marijuana and drug reform movements to fire back. While some took small solace in the fact that patients are still protected from federal persecution, the dominant reaction was dismay and disgust.

Dispensaries operators might want to get rid of the neon signage and get on the down low. (image via
"It is disingenuous of the Obama Administration to say it is not attacking patients while obstructing the implementation of local and state medical marijuana laws," said ASA executive director Steph Sherer. "The president is using intimidation tactics to stop elected officials from serving their constituents, thereby pushing patients into the illicit market."

"Well, this is disappointing," said Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML. "It certainly conflicts with Obama's original implication that he would let the states take care of medical marijuana. Now, it's the same as Bush's policy. Even before this memo came out, people have been saying for a long time that with a raid here and a raid there, it seemed like no real change in federal policy, and now -- bingo -- it's confirmed."

The Cole memo "raises more questions than it answers," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The department’s 2009 Ogden memorandum established guidance that federal resources should not be employed to target medical marijuana patients and providers who are in 'clear and unambiguous compliance' with state-based medical marijuana laws. Last week's so-called clarification is in fact open to many interpretations and falls far short of the explanation of policy that state lawmakers, members of Congress and advocates sought."

While the Cole memo clearly states that large-scale commercial grows are now targeted, even if they are in compliance with state laws, Piper noted, it "does not provide guidance on what the federal government considers to be the line between small and large-scale production."

Piper pointed out that regardless of federal policy, states can still legalize marijuana for medicinal use. He also called out politicians who hide behind fears of the feds to stall or thwart medical marijuana programs and scoffed at the notion that state employees could be prosecuted for setting up registries or collecting medical marijuana taxes.

"State officials who await blanket federal endorsement of medical marijuana or blame the federal government for their own failure to act are compromising the health and well being of their citizens while failing to implement in good faith the laws of their state," he said. "With regard to concerns about prosecution of state employees, which some state policymakers have expressed, the federal government has never sought to prosecute any state employee for licensing or otherwise regulating medical marijuana providers. In fact, we know of no instance in recent times in which state officials were personally prosecuted for implementing any state law. It is something that is just not done."

For Gieringer and other medical marijuana advocates, the Obama administration's behavior on the issue has dried up any reservoirs of good will generated by his campaign promise and the Ogden memo. Now, the administration is in the movement's cross hairs.

"They want to put a stop to any large scale distribution of medical marijuana, but all they're doing is prolonging the conflict between federal law and reality," Gieringer said. "We have to put pressure on Obama. He's up for reelection; he owes us an explanation of his waffling on this issue, and certainly his failure to address rescheduling. The reform movement needs to press him on this and inject it into the campaign. Why has he ignored all the studies, why has he ignored the rescheduling petition, why does he persist in sending people to prison for medical marijuana crimes? If we can put him on the defensive during the campaign, we might get a concession."

"The Obama Administration missed a huge opportunity to ease the state/federal conflict over medical marijuana and pave the way for responsible regulation in 16 states and the District of Columbia, home to 90 million Americans," agreed Piper. "By issuing vague guidance, the Obama Administration is sowing confusion and doing voters, state policymakers, and medical marijuana patients a disservice. The administration needs to be clear in its support of responsible state and local regulations designed to make marijuana legally available to patients while enhancing public safety and health. If the federal government is unable to provide leadership in this area, then the very least it can do is get out of the way and allow citizens to determine the policies that best serve local interests."

But the administration has given no indication it is likely to do that. Relations between the medical marijuana movement and the Obama administration are starting to feel like the Cold War.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Randy Billington (not verified)

News Flash! Obama lies again! Oh, that's right, he's a friggin' politician.

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:26pm Permalink
Anonymous is … (not verified)

I happen to have been involved in the "booming" industry, and happend to be in Denver when Dr. Reffer put up the sign in his window, that appears on this page. I did not read the entire write, however, I did read the text underneath the picture of this sign. I would like to mention that 1. Dr. Reffer "pierre" is a moron. He has been kicked out of several states and not allowed to enter into this industry, across most of the country, and 2. His idiocricy that put that sign in the window is one of very few dispensary owners. Most dispensaries are very easy on the eyes, and to be honest, you would have a hard time finding the majority of them, even if you knew where you were going. I am so tired of the ridiculous media portrayal of the industry. What a bunch of losers!

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:12pm Permalink
Pam gari (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous is … (not verified)

Other places such as L.A. have billboards and loads of neon with big burly bouncers at the door at a good portion of the "Cannabis clubs".  I worked in the tainted foods part and had access to dozens of clubs. Some were invisible with the owner one day driving a Jag, and the next his Hummer, and sometimes he would drive the Porche. That one was pretty well hidden with plenty of locks and gates and back exits. Others appeared to be trying to become the "Wallyworld" of weed.  Only one, and that one happened to be run by a British gentleman, was low key and followed the rules.  This has been so far out of balance for so long that it's probably only human nature to go overboard a bit, but what no one is thinking about is that by acting this way they are only confirming what the fearmongers say will happen if people have unlimited access to cannabis. It is a shame what is happening to those of us that need cannabis to deal with neuropathic pain. These Doctors that issue the cards there need to be regulated as well. All they do all day is issue cannabis cards, the one that I saw could barely speak English, and she had her husband taking the paperwork and collecting the cash. 

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:52am Permalink
Carl Olsen (not verified)

Maybe states will wake up now and file an application for federal reclassification of marijuana, which they should have already done a long time ago.  The states can't say they've been denied when they haven't even applied.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 11:24am Permalink
just intereste… (not verified)

If you don't understand why Obama waffles, let me make it clear. He is bought and paid for by the corporate pharmaceutical industry which stands to lose a lot of money if natural medicine is cheap, local, and legal. It's clear by looking at the big contributors to his campaign. The oil, timber, nylon, cotton, and a host of other big corporations are threatened by MJs cousin, Hemp. They all have a vested interest in keeping Canabis illegal. Not to mention the prison industry. There are two gentlemen in the Republican primaries who are not bought and paid for by powerful corporations. They are also the two most denigrated in the media as Kooks or nutcases. They are Gary Johnson and Ron Paul. I don't care about marijuana, but I run my vehicles on vegetable oil and hemp would provide more gallons/acre than any other plant that grows in my area.
Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:32pm Permalink
Denny (not verified)

In reply to by just intereste… (not verified)

There are a lot of industries (as you have pointed out) and interests that are not going to sit by and watch as hemp becomes more and more acceptable. This IS part of the main reason why it was taxed and eventually prohibited in the first place. Also, the Communist Prohibitionists like to be able punish their political enemies through Drug Prohibitionist politics that can make an otherwise law-abiding citizen an outlaw of the State. And then there are the racial aspects of why they called cannabis by the term "marijuana" in the first place. Also keep in mind that President Obama has kept very little of his promises he made during his campaign for the office. He has basically given dozens of miles of U.S. border area in Arizona to the Mexican Drug Cartels to operate in with the guns his "fast and furious" program supplied to them. Keep letting the proponents of the immoral and FAILED War on Drugs KNOW that the blood of the innocent people killed because of this unjust War -- include children -- are on their hands for promoting evil Government through these unjust Drug Prohibition laws. Thanks for listening, 777denny

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 3:39am Permalink
Duncan20903 (not verified)

If so please allow me to fall all over myself to offer my appreciation for all of your hard work, particularly getting the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to make that 180 degree change in their opinion of cannabis as medicine. That one piece of information is making a significant difference when front line grunts like me are confronted by people that believe that cannabinoid medicine is a "scam".

But do you really believe that the Feds would treat an application by the States differently than the two rescheduling petitions that they've managed to ignore for almost a 1/4 of a century?

For those unaware of the history NORML filed the first rescheduling petition with the Feds in 1972, and it took until 1988 to get their decision, which was in the favor of patients but the DEA decided to just ignore the judges ruling.  The more recent petition was filed in 2002 and it was in May when a suit to compel them to hear the petition was filed. 16+9 = 25 years of intransigently breaking their own rules.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 12:53pm Permalink
Carl Olsen (not verified)

In reply to by Duncan20903 (not verified)

The NORML rescheduling petition ended in 1994.  States did not start enacting laws defining marijuana as medicine until 1996.  The key phrase in the federal drug law is "accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."  Yes, I think a state has more authority to demand federal reclassification than NORML.  No disrespect to NORML for that fabulous ruling they got in 1988, "Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man," but that was then and this is now.  Marijuana actually does have accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.  The American Medical Association finally acknowledged that fact 6 days after the Iowa Board of Pharmacy closed the evidence from four months of public hearings and taking scientific evidence.  And, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy gave the Iowa Board of Pharmacy an award 6 months later for recommending rescheduling.  So, yeah, I want a second opinion, doc.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:06pm Permalink
Emmet C (not verified)

I wrote the following to Obama with Marijuana Policy Project's petition (click the link to add your name) to reconsider this most recent travesty. (If you're not familiar with the 'thumb' reference, see Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene I. It essentially means "F you!" but adds a little class (or snobbery!), don't you think?):


Integrity? Pffft! I bite my thumb, sir!


It seems you're just another politician doing the bidding of some entity other than the American people, up to 81% of whom approve of the use of medical marijuana via a doctor's prescription, according to recent opinion polls. So, who is pulling your strings on this issue?


What about your campaign rhetoric that science should trump politics in matters of policy? Research (when it has been allowed!) shows incredible promise in the use of medical marijuana, with many potential uses in addition to the already proven and approved uses as an anti-nausea treatment and an appetite stimulant with NO SIDE EFFECTS. Yet, you would prosecute sick people seeking a little relief for the sake of politics? I bite my thumb!


So, I’m writing to express to you my profound disappointment with your record on medical marijuana. When you ran for President in 2008 under the mantra of “Change,” you said the following:


“I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws on this [medical marijuana] issue ...”


This simple, yet inspiring, statement captured just one aspect of the “Change” you promised to bring the nation once you took your seat in the Oval Office. But now it has become clear that these words were mere campaign rhetoric, cynically trotted out to help capture a portion of the electorate before turning your back on them.


Now, instead of respecting state laws that have established safe dispensary systems to provide medical marijuana to very sick patients, federal prosecutors, under your direction, would be allowed to use “Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws.”


The end result of your broken promise will be a cruel tragedy for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. A small minority suffering from heart-wrenching diseases will now be turned out to the dangers of the criminal drug market for a chance to find their medicine and alleviate the suffering your betrayal has left them. I bite my thumb ... at YOU, sir.


Please have mercy on these patients and reconsider your stance.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 1:15pm Permalink
gypski (not verified)

Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime......  Yeah, but its not as serious as letting Wall Street rob, pillage and plunder because they are keeping these ignoramuses in office.

We are all beginning to see our elected officials live more on myths and lies concerning every aspect of American citizens lives. They live in a totally different world then the world of reality where science overrules ignorance and lies.  We only have ourselves to blame by continuing to elect people who don't have everyone's best interests at heart, and not just the interests of those who fund their scampaigns..

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 1:18pm Permalink
Jules (not verified)

It was not only inevitable but also a needed stepping stone towards legalization. There needs to be clear cut rules and rights and up until now there have not been. The only difference between before this letter and after it is that now no one is under the false impression that the federal government does not support the DEA in fulfilling its obligation to enforce the CSA. This needed to happen. The people in states where it has become almost de facto legal need to be angry, worried, and upset instead of complacent and egocentrically apathetic. People need a fire under them to be motivated to do what needs to be done in 2012 and beyond. As long as people view Medical Cannabis as a compromise for legalization cannabis will never be re-legalized. The movement to end cannabis prohibition needs to rekindle its flame and it needs to do it before election time rolls around. Politicians need to know this is a topic that is so important to us that we will not vote for them if they do not support it. I have not seen anything near the sort of enthusiasm and drive we need in to long. Not since before one could go and get medical cards and say they are still supporting the movement but in fact are just being lackadaisical, waiting for someone else to stand up and do it for them. This memo ensures two emotions. Fear and Compassion for those who are sick and dying and in serious need of medicinal compounds they can only get from the cannabis plant. Mix those two emotions with a strong will and belief in what needs to be done and you have an unstoppable force the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. So I say get angry, get upset, feel compassion and fear for the sick and dying but for the love of all that is don't sit and fester on it, channel it into something so positive and powerful your mere existence becomes a juggernaut of change. Many people are waiting for change but it doesn't work like that. Change is a form of social evolution. Things slowly progress, as society progresses, until the breaking point is reached and then all of a sudden things have changed. We are currently standing on one side of that breaking point and we need all the force and momentum we can muster to break through. It is possible. We can do it. But we must be willing to do it. No one is standing up for us, we need to stand up for ourselves. I would like to clarify that I do not mean all people with medical cards I merely speak of the myriad card holders who do not need medical cannabis but rather use the card to not go to jail, abusers of the system.


Now I will say two things about the contents of this letter, one good and one seemingly stupid. The good is that they still are standing behind their belief that patients should not be gone after, even if it is in an underhanded way. Yes it sucks that everyone else participating in the Medical Marijuana Industry is now fair game but we must also keep in mind some the worst opponents of prop 19 where owners of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries who were passing out propaganda against Prop 19 to try to ensure it did not pass so they could perpetuate the status quo . Not all of them or even a majority but enough that we can safely say Prop 19 most likely would have passed if everyone who was involved in the cannabis industry was supporting it because they knew the status quo was not safe (as this memo tells us). The seemingly stupid is that Obama aloud this to happen the year before his re-election. Unless he is in some way planning on pulling a magic marijuana rabbit out of his hat before the election gets rolling he pretty much has pissed of the 80% of American's who support Medical Cannabis. Quite seemingly stupid.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 4:22pm Permalink
darkcycle (not verified)

Perhaps our President is simply protecting the same interests that he's been protecting all along...the banksters. Without the illegal status of drugs in general and marijuana in particular,  the business of money laundering collapses, and the insolvent banks with it. Make this money 'legal' and the premiums attached to handling large sums of illicit money dissolve.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 4:26pm Permalink
Drewbert (not verified)

In reply to by joshb (not verified)

How can anyone argue with such an intelligent response? Instead of trying to silence people that disagree with you, perhaps you should provide a well thought out rebuttal of their position and have an actual debate of the facts. Your actions are no different from the Government telling marijuana supporters to shut up when they present their opinions that marijuana should be legal. Open communication and intelligent dialog will do more for this fight than any other weapon.
Mon, 07/11/2011 - 11:38am Permalink
massvocals (not verified)

I think the drug war has made a government far to opinionated  and stubbard   The government has refuse to listen to president  and  continue the war  like an army given written orders   they will not give up   on US the people  even as the people  want legalization  over 80%   when this happen  and congress does nothing to stop  the crime on the people  the people should  infact  used civil code 50  protect  by any means 

we should go to war  pursuit of happiness  is  under attack  what the states  have a right to do  and federal government fed wise have right to do  is jurisdiction   points    federal government  has no jurisdiction in the state   war between the state  is on again   let us pick up arms  and start the war   as this is liberty issue  and infraction  which must be killed 


Fri, 07/08/2011 - 8:26am Permalink
KnockItOff!! (not verified)

Why does NORML'S St. Pierre keep slamming cannabis in its most natural form? Cannabis, in its natural form, has proven to be superior to all its imitators for medicinal purposes, whether they are synthetic THC, like Marinol, or solely cannabis-based like Sativex? This shit has got to stop and the enabling, rationalizing and justifying his b.s. is unacceptable!

So really, why the F. does St. Pierre keep repeating this crap:

"If you are going to sell medicine, then you need something more than 'Here is a jar with some dried vegetable matter,' " says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Slamming natural, untouched whole plant cannabis as medicine and calling it "dried vegetable matter" sounds like something the Drug Czar would say, because the Drug Czar is paid to distort cannabis' medical history and efficacy. What's St. Pierre's motivation in slamming one of the "safest therapeutically active substances known to man"?

NORML has been duplicitously slamming cannabis as medicine and obscuring the fact that real cannabis is indeed a very real threat to Big Pharma, because cannabis has amazing versatility and a remarkable safety profile.

See full article from DailyFinance:

And I love the work Armentano has done in compiling and summarizing all the benefits of real cannabis; so, I was shocked to see his article where he TRIED to tell us the pharmaceutical industry isn't scared of cannabis' potential to affect their bottom line. With FDA-meds dropping tens of thousands of people each year, cannabis would eventually put a good-size dent in many bottom lines; because it works great for many patients and it cannot kill them, which is a very big selling point, especially to people who know how deadly many FDA-approved medicines have become.

Unless they stop attacking the plant, I will never give them another cent and hope they crash and burn for slamming cannabis.

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 12:59pm Permalink
Gary (not verified)

Everyone seems to be getting all up in arms over the president's backing down from the false promises he had made during his campaign year.  Why be so shocked and upset over something that every president has done since the Nixon administration.  Giving America a sense of false hope is nothing new to the era we live in.  So again I ask, why be so shocked?

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:34pm Permalink
Sam Abrams (not verified)

Writing to Obama to protest his broken promise(s) is totally useless.  The only hope for progress on this and other issues is mounting a prmary challenge to him in New Hampshire, as Gene McCarthy did to LBJ.


the natural person to mount such a challenge is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  Of course, Sanders will never be a viable candidate, but none of the truly viable candidates (Schumer, Pelosi, Finegold) can afford to openly oppose the leader of their party until he has been shown to be vulnerable, thus, when McCarthy got 40% of the votes in NH against LBJ's 50%, then Bobby Kennedy stepped forward.


So, if you really want to do something useful write to the Honorable Bernie Sanders, US Senate, Wash DC 20510 and urge him to enter the NH primary.  

Mon, 07/11/2011 - 12:17pm Permalink
Jimi (not verified)

I think Obama is our new Hitler,

He has no regard for human life, lock everyone up in prison for smoking a joint.

Look what he also doing to our country, stripping the morals out of our democracy.

Even thou Hitler was a evil man, he actually did some good for his country, healthcare for the people, and even had a hand in Volk's Wagon, the people car.

But Obama has no chance of being re-elected, making threat's to seniors and the disable, by not giving them the SS check's.

This A**hole(Obama) needs to be impeached ASAP!

Wake-up Federal government an smell the bacon.

There's money to be made, and people need to get back to work.

If our government keep's this attitude there going to have a civil war on there hand's, and we can not afford any more wars. We have spent enough money in the last 40 years on a failed drug war. 

We need to take care of the our own citizens, and heal our country, I want to get that feeling back of FREEDOM. An not feel like a prisoner in my own home.

Obama show some respect to the people of the United State's of America!

Tue, 07/12/2011 - 11:27pm Permalink
disgusted (not verified)

I came across an interesting quote by Dr. David Smith of San Francisco which is so true that we who want the marijuana LIE/ prohibition to end, should adopt it as our battle cry: "The Government line is that the use of marihuana leads to more dangerous drugs. The FACT is that the lack of marihuana leads to dangerous drugs." Truer words have rarely been spoken. The collective 'We' who have a better life because of marijuana, and in spite of it's prohibition must organize and use our collective intelligence to overturn this unjust law. Organization is a must and a massive truth campaign is essential to undo the lies that have spread across generations. The lack of deaths and overdoses in regard to marijuana consumption can not be overemphasized. The benefits medically, despite the FDA's (Fraudulent Duplicitous Anti-truth) recent reaffirmation of the  LIE that it is addictive and has NO MEDICAL VALUE, as well as the safe delivery systems NEED to be explained repeatedly to the public at large. My only hope is that those with the gold who rule and are for the legalization of marijuana and plan on exploiting it's great economic potential, see these obvious truths must be put in the public forum so we can correct this great injustice. 

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:03pm Permalink
Randy Stortroen (not verified)

I think President Obama is getting a bum rap on these questions and many more like them. I say that not because his actions have been appropriate but his inaction. His problem is that the power of his administration's ideas are not equal to the challenges of the office. Frankly, his critics' ideas suffer from the same flaw but they are not held to the same standard.

My estimation of the President is that he is a true disciple of the late Dr. King and thus does indeed want to be judged by the power of his ideas. It is no mean feat for a president to live up to the good doctor's prescription when so many issues cross his desk. The policy prescriptions promoted by activist organizations do not begin to meet the standards required for presidential action. When they do, he will embrace them, whether they come from the other side or from the margins.

Thu, 08/25/2011 - 10:32pm Permalink

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