Reading Jonathan Caulkins is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

Boy, did I just waste a chunk of my life. Wish I could get it back.

Here’s my first mistake: Reading Kevin Sabet’s tweets today, which included this one:

Thoughtful Natl Review piece,Caulkins/Lee: “the arguments for legalization often overlook considerable downsides&risks”

Here’s my second mistake: Deciding to read the piece.

It’s The Drug-Policy Roulette by Jonathan P. Caulkins and Michael A. C. Lee in the Summer 2012 edition of National Affairs (not National Review).

Tnis piece reminds me why I often consider Caulkins one of the worst of the drug policy “academics” cabal in the U.S.

And, I’ve just got to ask, how does someone, whom I assume has advanced degrees, miss out on gaining a basic understanding of analogies?

So, first he hits us with this:

The commission’s advice echoes four decades of arguments by advocates of legalization, who have long promoted their cause as a simple solution to the violence, disease, incarceration, social decay, and other ills fostered by the drug trade. […]

But the arguments for legalization often overlook its considerable downsides and risks. They serially underplay, for instance, the possibility of substantially increased use of and dependence on drugs. Though no one really knows precisely how much drug use would go up if it were legalized, advocates tend to disingenuously offer exact estimates favorable to their cause — suggesting that they can know with confidence that increased use would be limited and controllable. This false certitude neglects the fact that no nation in the modern era has legalized the production of any of the major illegal drugs for unsupervised use. (Even the Netherlands allows only retail sales of marijuana, not production or wholesale distribution.) Legalization is thus a leap into uncharted and potentially dangerous waters.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the uncertainty argument that he and his friends pushed in the “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know” book.

How dare we legalizers say we know what will happen if drugs are legalized when there is no exact place in the world that matches the conditions? It’s unknowable, and it’s irresponsible for us to say that we know anything.

And then he proceeds to go on for over 60 paragraphs to tell us what will happen if drugs are legalized. Is he completely irony-challenged?

And, of course, like the rest of them, he never seems to consider that anything other than prohibition exists as an approach to dealing with drug problems.

I recognize a lot of the content of the book in this article, including the infamous “toast” example.

… it has become fashionable for legalization’s proponents to moderate their requests, asking only for “experiments” with legalization. The implicit (if not explicit) promise is that if legalization turns out badly, we can always re-impose prohibition — ending up no worse off, and at least a bit wiser. […]

The concept of reversibility (as employed in the drug-legalization debate) comes from the physical sciences, and has to do with whether an object can be returned to its original condition after being changed by some process. The difference between ice and bread is a good example: Applying heat to ice will melt it into water; removing the same amount of heat energy by putting the water in the freezer allows it to refreeze into the original state. By contrast, when one applies heat to bread, the bread becomes toast. Removing that heat energy by putting the toast into the freezer creates cold toast, not fresh bread. Melting ice is a reversible process; toasting bread is not. The related social-science concept is called “path dependence,” meaning that outcomes depend not only on current inputs, but also on the past history of the system.

Legalizing drugs is like toasting bread: Not all of the resulting changes can be undone by re-imposing prohibition.

No, it’s not.

It’s not even close. Legalizing drugs isn’t remotely like toast and adding a bunch of scientific talk about ice and water doesn’t make a bad analogy work.

Having a baby is like making toast. Once the toast is done and has popped out, you can’t put it back in and make it not be toast again. See what I did there? That’s how an analogy works.

Legalizing drugs could be like opening Pandora’s box. That would be an actual legitimate analogy. Wrong, but at least structurally appropriate.

By the way, that notion that Caulkins derides of wanting an “experiment” with legalization sounds a lot like what I and others have advocated for years using the Justice Brandeis “laboratories of democracy” idea.

An idea that his co-author Mark Kleiman now seems not only to be embracing, but almost ready to take credit.

TCR: In a column you wrote for TCR you mentioned using Washington and Colorado as ‘laboratories for democracy,’ what does that mean?

Kleiman: A lot of voters obviously want to legalize marijuana, but they’re often not very well informed, because we have no idea what the consequences are. There’s only so much you can know about the consequences of legality if all you can study is illegality.

Given that it’s likely we’re going to be changing our policies, it would be nice to know in advance what the consequences are, but it’s hard to do that without actually trying it.

We don’t want to try it at a national level, because that would be very hard to undo if it went wrong. So the place to try is in some district or territory and the whole world can learn a lot from letting Colorado and Washington play their game.

What do you think of that, Jonathan? Is Kleiman making toast now?

Going back to the Caulkins piece, the “roulette” in the title is, you guessed it, another horrific analogy, which he reveals at the end.

Experimenting with legalization is like playing drug-policy roulette. If you have been consistently putting money on black at the roulette table with only mixed success, would it make sense for you to place all of your remaining money on red the next turn and expect a certain win? Of course not. Expecting legalization to rectify prohibition’s unintended consequences without creating any of its own is similarly unwise. Worse, while a roulette player is free to alternate from black to red and red to black, betting on legalization could be an irreversible mistake.

No, it’s not. It’s not anything like roulette. It’s just a bad analogy.

So I’ve decided to title and end my post the same way Jonathan did. With a bad analogy.

The title of this post, of course, is from the description of a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adams’ delightful “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It’s as ridiculous as Caulkins’ analogies, but has the distinct advantage of being funny.

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36 Responses to Reading Jonathan Caulkins is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

  1. claygooding says:

    “”But the arguments for legalization often overlook its considerable downsides and risks. They serially underplay, for instance, the possibility of substantially increased use of and dependence on drugs.””

    I see he has the ONDCP double speak down,,he must converse with Kev Kev a lot. They cannot talk about marijuana legalization without using “other” drugs harms to make any new possible harms from marijuana sound dangerous enough to justify their position.

  2. darkcycle says:

    Not only bad, but factually challenged as well. Marijuana was legal and readily available before it was prohibited. So what he’s telling us is fresh bread, is actually VERY OLD cold toast. I knew that breakfast he served me was funny. Now excuse me, I have to go puke.

  3. N.T. Greene says:

    I don’t know how many English majors we have here on the couch, but being one myself… I read this stuff and can’t decide if I should laugh out loud or vomit in disgust. That’s one hell of a feeling.

    And, come on man, you don’t start off well if you accuse vast swaths of voters of being uninformed. Whether or not it is true has little to do with gaining sympathy from your reader. I become resistant to these kinds of generalizations even when they are not aimed at me — it is, in a way, an ad hominem attack.

    And hey, that argument against exploring unknown territory popped up again! Hey! All that really does is establish a line of reasoning for exploring phased approaches. Believe it or not there are ways to study this stuff without throwing off all the limiters from the get go.

    You’re also ignoring the stats from Prohibition 1.0. Oh, man, I forgot. We’re not allowed to bring that up, because that sure sounds like evidence against your argument, doesn’t it? You can’t have your cake and eat it too, especially when the stats on your legal drugs could be considered “legal genocide” while the illegal drugs of today have relatively small fatality pools.

    Let’s break this down a little further, shall we? You discount our stats about usage increases, saying we cherry-pick low numbers that support us. You, no doubt, have studies that predict grander problems. Instead of arguing like morons, let’s take a look at the mean value and see if that is in any way acceptable. Or we could look to the decriminalization in Portugal as a model. (Ooops, more evidence against you — but it isn’t from the US so it isn’t good enough for you anyways.) ANYWAYS, you’re still arguing in a circle. You know, the shape of a roulette wheel, where the results of any given roll are RANDOM. I feel like, in using that, you failed to see how betting on it to fly straight was a mistake.

    Forgive the ranting, I’m a little tired. Almost done. Gonna crack my fingers and really lay into this roulette bit. I don’t play with weak metaphors or bad analogies.

    So, I’m assuming Prohibition is black, while legalization is red. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. See, I’m having a problem immediately, and it’s called a false dichotomy. Your wheel has squeaky bearings, and I haven’t really begun to spin it. You are also discounting the legitimacy of exploring a bet on alternatives — by loosely veiling it beneath the wonderful gambler’s fallacy. It certainly is true that a red bet after a long string of mixed successes with black would not guarantee a win — HOWEVER, to continue to bet on black is based in equally flawed reasoning. The truth is, when you’re dealing with randomness, there is no such thing and a sure bet.

    And you didn’t take this bit far enough, but don’t worry, I’ll carry you. There are -numbers- on a roulette wheel. Oh boy. I hear the groaning already. That makes betting on a successful model even tougher, as you’ve gone from a 50/50 bet to a whole other monster. But here’s the thing — the potential gains are bigger. Not to mention you can try to figure out what numbers the wheel tends towards (We all know that, in roulette as well as society, what is perceived as chaos has, in fact, some deeper sense of logic and order. The casino cheats, society just fails to see connections).

    To simplify, let’s assume that there is but one correct number, and that by betting by mere color only returns our bet back to us. We do not see what number comes, only if we win or not. I know, I’m getting theoretical here — I blame the meds. Regardless. So, how do we win, sir? We have a big stack of chips, and as noted by your “mixed success” line, perhaps the answers do not lie solely in the black half. We do not have to go all in on one approach; rather we may explore several across the spectrum. We may, in fact, find that the correct number and color coincides with the location of the casino, and who operates it. Hey! Sounds a whole lot like what voters did. They found an approach they were willing to bet on, and are watching that wheel turn as we speak.

    Oh, here’s the big problem for the feds. What if they’re right? What if they’re close to being right? If you flip the table before it stops, you have no way of knowing.

    Odds are, there is going to be some bad with the good. I don’t doubt that — but there is bad with the “good” we already have. Isn’t it time we expanded our betting strategy a bit? Or would you rather all in on every spin and lose your shirt from time to time?

    I guess this went down in quality. I’m pretty tired, hence the incoherent ranting.

  4. TINMA says:

    let them lie…er I mean talk, they are going to lose in the end anyway.

    Just as the American people are seeing how government lies about everything to get what they want, the people are also seeing how these small government agencies and talkingheads are doing the same.

    The end is coming, the bill is coming due.

  5. strayan says:

    Allow me:

    Experimenting with women’s suffrage is like playing political roulette… The expectation that voting rights [for women] will rectify all forms of patriachal oppression without creating any new problems is similarly unwise. Worse, while a roulette player is free to alternate from black to red and red to black, giving women the right to vote could be an irreversible mistake.

    • Windy says:

      Believe it or not I would not want to remove the ability of women or anyone to be legally prevented from voting, but giving women the vote was instrumental to the (detrimental, IMNSHO) rise of socialism in this county. As a woman, I deplore the apparent lack of knowledge in economics, lack of support for individual rights, as well as lacking the will to force the government to obey the Constitution in all too many female voters.

      • primus says:

        It seems as if women see everything through the ‘motherhood’ lens. If we can convince them that the drug war is bad for their babies, they will block vote and it will end in the next election cycle.

      • Windy says:

        Reading my comment, it appears I contradicted myself. To be clear, I would not want to remove the ability to vote from any person currently eligible to vote.

  6. Servetus says:

    “…because we have no idea what the consequences are. There’s only so much you can know about the consequences of legality if all you can study is illegality.”

    The basic argument is that if drugs are legalized, then drugs will be legal. It’s the same vacuous argument prohibitionists have used for years. And Kleiman and Caulkins just can’t get enough of it. They appear to have little faith in the adaptability of the human species (we’ve been to the moon, no less), and they won’t look at historical precedent, and how various cultures pulled off the quasi-legalization thing with ease. They’re lost in their own sea of doubts, and they believe everyone else should be lost as well.

    For the ignorant, science is ‘just an opinion’; or marketing research is ‘just an opinion’, because such people live in a culture where belief reigns. For them, reality is a contest of uninformed opinions. The Kleimans and Caulkins of the world really have no clue about science, or marketing, and they don’t appear to have had the drug experiences and resulting expertise to discern expertise in areas of drug related social behavior.

    • claygooding says:

      Caulkins and Kleiman’s only expertise is in riding the government tit. They are attempting the impossible,they are attempting to be relevant but only achieve ridiculous.

      I think they both prove exactly what the problem with our education system is,,we educate too many people way beyond their intelligence.

      • Windy says:

        I think it is more that NO ONE is educated in government controlled schools in the founding principle of this country, individual FREEDOM, self-ownership, and self-determination!

    • Freeman says:

      The Kleimans and Caulkins of the world really have no clue about science, or marketing, and they don’t appear to have had the drug experiences and resulting expertise to discern expertise in areas of drug related social behavior.

      Which make them perfect for the task of spreading prohibition apologia. Those who do possess such qualities generally form opinions which differ from those the government wants disseminated. There’s a reason these guys have been given megaphones.

  7. Deep Dish says:

    Whenever I stalk Kev kev’s twitter feed, I always detox with Ethan Nadelmann’s feed to cleanse my hands and brush my teeth. The tooth brush is harm reduction.

    I wonder if Kleiman would ever donate to a legalization campaign. After all, all that uncertainty of winning or losing, with the odds stacked against you. But donating the money would get him the experiment.

    • Pete says:

      No. Kleiman wasn’t publicly interested in the experiment until AFTER Colo/Wash votes.

      • darkcycle says:

        He was over there by the lamp, wringing his hands and mumbling “We just don’t KNOW” over and over. Did that the whole election night. I think I heard him sobbing a little, too. Feh.

  8. Opiophiliac says:

    Use will go up! The Horror! Think of the children!

    Let’s take a far more controversial case than cannabis: heroin. Let us suppose that unlike Ron Paul, who stated he doesn’t need the government to tell him not to use heroin, under legalization suddenly the rate of heroin dependence went up by ten-fold. It is questionable whether the rate of dependence would increase, even if the rate of casual use increased, but supposing it did, would this be a problem?

    The prohibitionist would say yes, but the very nature of heroin dependence would be transformed. Under a legalization regime, unless overtaxed there is no reason to believe a heroin habit would cost any more than an alcohol or tobacco habit. Users would be getting measured doses, those who inject would use sterile drugs and equipment. There would be no more acquisitive crime to fund habits, no more diseases from syringe sharing, users wouldn’t have to spend most of the day trying to get money and without fear of arrest users would be more likely to seek out health services. The benefit for the average user would be profound.

    Society would benefit too, from criminal justice savings, both policing narcotic prohibition and the acquisitive shoplifting, property crimes, prostitution, cartel violence, ect. These savings combined with tax revenue could fund treatment, and since the only people seeking treatment would sincerely want to stop using drugs (unlike our current system where many people entering rehab are coerced, forcing people to get medical care they do not want is a human rights violation and undermines the efforts of other individuals who truly want/need treatment).

    If there were so many more people using heroin wouldn’t there be a lot more overdoses? Not necessarily, instead of hysteria we could educate people about how to use opiates safely, most importantly to not combine opiates with CNS depressants. Vials of nasal naltrexone spray (to reverse OD) could be distributed with every purchase. Injecting opiates maximizes the probability of an OD, and prohibition encourages injection as a method of drug delivery. For those who choose to inject their opiates, offering them safe places to do so would lower mortality among opiate users.

    Even if drug use exploded this would not be catastrophic, indeed if the nature of opiate use was made less dangerous, by promoting opium over heroin for example, there would be a net gain even if use went up. It matters little if the rate of drug use increases if the total harm to the individual and society decreases. From a consequentialist perspective that which causes the least harm is the moral action.

  9. Byddaf yn egluro: says:

    “Evidence provides no indication that decriminalization leads to a measurable increase in marijuana use.”

    — Boston University Department of Economics

    “There is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use.”

    — National Academy of Sciences

    “The preponderance of the evidence which we have gathered and examined points to the conclusion that decriminalization has had virtually no effect either on the marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among American young people.”

    — The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research

    “The Dutch experience, together with those of a few other countries with more modest policy changes, provides a moderately good empirical case that removal of criminal prohibitions on cannabis possession (decriminalization) will not increase the prevalence of marijuana or any other illicit drug; the argument for decriminalization is thus strong.”

    — British Journal of Psychiatry

  10. CJ says:


    the only way to save one from the horrors Pete has explained was if that brick was a brick of h that you could promptly mix and use to take away atleast SOME of the pain these stupid bastards have inflicted on our eyes and minds.

  11. Francis says:

    Legalizing drugs is like toasting bread: Not all of the resulting changes can be undone by re-imposing prohibition.

    Actually, prohibition is like toasting bread (and burning the shit out of it). What’s truly “irreversible” are the effects of violence. Prohibition kills. And when it doesn’t kill, it brutalizes. And the effects of that brutality will be felt for a long, long time. Thankfully, people are beginning to wake up and recognize the drug war for the nightmare that it is. And that’s the real reason that prohibition is toast.

  12. Scott says:

    The proclaimed risk in ending ‘certain drug’ prohibition (especially as a basis for sustaining it) is ridiculous.

    At least considering the U.S. reportedly has the highest rate of drug use, even compared to nations with relatively relaxed drug laws (e.g. our cannabis consumption rate is not less than the Netherlands), and prohibitionists cannot even create a drug-free prison system, there is zero evidence proving prohibition works at all.

    I know people confessing they tried cannabis and did not like it. I know that if heroin became legal, I would not try it. Is it reasonable to conclude that perhaps market saturation has already been achieved? People have access to roller coasters, scuba diving, and such, yet I do not see a dominating spike in experiencing such activities as a result of their legality.

    Moreover, California made cannabis much more easily available over a decade and a half ago. Prohibitionists are decrying that cannabis is being used recreationally there, and I have reason to believe they are right about that. So what? Where is the disaster? No where.

    Consistently according to the U.S. National Drug Use & Health Survey, cannabis is 73% of current illicit drug use. Yet, the fact is there is no experimental science proving any harm in moderate use (I know this, because I went to the prohibitionist websites — DEA, NIDA, ONDCP, SAMHSA, etc. — looking for such proof).

    Repealing prohibition (including avoiding the serious risk in maintaining it) would not likely cause disaster, based on all available evidence.

    Additionally, people such as yours truly will be out there educating the public upon legalization about the actual risks in recreational drug use, such risks in the case of cannabis easily capable of being minimized greatly.

    Considering that vaporized cannabis is a safe alternative to alcohol, it is reasonable to conclude that people probably will make that switch, leading to improved health.

    “Researchers have long recognized the strong correlation between stress and substance abuse…” – U.S. NIDA (emphasis mine)

    That quote, ironically delivered by a prohibitionist organization, makes perfect sense. Drug abuse (actually, any form of abuse) is largely a stress management issue. Yet, if you visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website (, you will not even see the word stress on their home page once.

    What we need is a ‘war’ on unhealthy stress to reduce abuse, not an ever-growing rule-of-law defining risk in opposition against the unalienable right to liberty (one of the truths to be held self-evident in the most famous passage in U.S. history), such law ironically delivering the worst form of abuse given its generally broad scope of destruction — the abuse of power (the form of abuse our nation was established against, according to the U.S. Declaration of Independence).

    Repealing ‘certain drug’ prohibition is obviously the less risky move for society to make. Thankfully, society is increasingly understanding that, despite the idiocy working against us.

    • Freeman says:

      You have completely shredded the uncertainty/risk argument. Great work! I plan to quote heavily from your post.

  13. Freeman says:

    Thanks for reading this for us, Pete, so we don’t have to read it ourselves. I had a go at it yesterday but ran out of time and patience and only got partway through.

    Over at the “RBC” where Kleiman blogs, Keith Humphreys took Caulkins’ statement “Cocaine and crack, heroin, and methamphetamine all sell for $100 or more per pure gram, making them more valuable than gold. (If cigarettes cost that much, a standard pack of 20 would carry a price tag of roughly $2,000.)” and made the mental leap that Caulkins obviously meant for the uninformed and twisted it into “If cigarettes suffered the same legal disadvantage as cocaine and heroin, they would cost about $2,000 a pack.

    I pointed out the obvious fallacy: Marijuana suffers the same legal disadvantage as cocaine and heroin, yet costs much much less than $2,000 for the equivalent volume and weight of a pack of cigarettes. Of course, in true “Reality Based Community” tradition, the esteemed author declines to either defend his position or admit his mistake.

  14. stlgonzo says:

    I haven’t read “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” since high school. You got me to download it and will start reading it again tonight. Thanks Pete. Maybe you should get some kind of link with Amazon and get paid when your subliminal advertising works.

    • claygooding says:

      A book that has helped me through these years of being persecuted for being intelligent enough not to use alcohol has been “Catch 22”. If all you have seen is the movie,you should read it,,and of course,I re-read Jack Herer’s book and hope for Willie Nelson to do an audio book of it.

      • stlgonzo says:

        I re-read catch-22 last year. I would listen to Willie Nelson read the phone book, but your idea is better.

  15. Matthew Meyer says:

    Watched “Lincoln” yesterday.

    There’s this one scene in the House of Representatives where one rep says, in debate over the 13th Amendment banning slavery, that it’s just too uncertain:

    “We just don’t know what will become of the Negro if slavery is abolished!”

    One of the amendment’s supporters (it might be Tommy Lee Jones, brilliant as Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist–I forget) retorts from the gallery:

    “He’ll be free, that’s what will become of him!”

    Of course I thought immediately of M.A.R.K., Caulkins, and the parade of Chicken Littles behind them.

    Good film, by the way.

  16. WatchinItCrumble says:

    At the end of the second paragraph, didn’t they just concede one of the main arguments for ending prohibition?
    “Allowing legal businesses to produce and distribute drugs would in fact drive criminal organizations out of the market and, at the same time, eliminate a great deal of the harm they do to society.”

    • Pete says:

      Absolutely. But see they regularly talk about the damage caused by prohibition and want it changed. Just not eliminated. At least not yet. Until we know everything for certain. Or until they’re done writing articles and books taking the moderate middle road of blaming the extremists on both sides.

      • jojo says:

        “But see they regularly talk about the damage caused by prohibition and want it changed. Just not eliminated.”

        So do we. There are a significant prohibitions left intact (marijuana prohibition for children) and created (DUI limits) under the new Colorado and Washington laws.

  17. kaptinemo says:

    ‘Uncertainty’. Geez, we know what will NOT happen, and it’s vastly better than what might, under a regulation regime.

    This country was not settled by pantywaists and milquetoasts! It was settled by people who never heard of the SAS’s motto, but who lived it every day: “Who dares, wins.”

    And as far as the expected (and I suspect, unconsciously arrogant) assumption that the citizens are ‘uninformed’ WRT cannabis, perhaps those who make that assumption are themselves ignorant of the explosion in cannabis research and dissemination that has occurred on the Web since its’ inception. They ought to go to Brian Bennett’s site, or Granny Stormcrow’s, if they want more information than they could possibly digest.

    If they dared, that is; doing so might upset their precious little worldview, the center of which only they inhabit, as if they were its’ axis mundi.

    I am so sick of these hysterical, hand-wringing Nervous Nellies standing in the way of regaining our freedoms in fear that those very freedoms may have consequences that upset their tender, fragile sensibilities. They are the kind of people Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he said “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” By doing it the NN’s way, with prohibition, we have wound up with ‘too small a degree’ of freedom, with catastrophic results.

    Send the NN’s back to their cloisters, where they can worry themselves sick about their favorite peeve, and let’s have some real freedom for once!

    • Freeman says:

      The uncertainty argument is classic FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The tactic was used heavily by Microsoft to impede the rise of Linux and rebirth of Apple. It can be quite effective, but only as a temporary stalling tactic.

  18. Django says:

    Hm… Seems like that turd never heard of the netherlands.
    Cant blame him, in european reception, “true” americans and geographical knowledge never went well together.

    No, seriously, the netherlands have one of the lowest consumptionrates of cannabis in the EU. Lower than germany, and dude, the germans have some tough laws.
    For Example, if you get caught in germany walking along with a spliff you`ll automatically lose your drivers license. This can be avoided of course with big money and expensive layers… .
    Isnt it the same as in the US?

  19. KPRyan says:

    I hate to admit it, but I used to read that magazine as a boy, and continued into my adult years. It seemed amazing when Buckley devoted an issue in the (late 80’s – early 90’s?) arguing the drug war was lost and should be scuttled. That was one of the last times any truth at all was written in the pages of National Review (and, in hindsight maybe the first time as well).

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