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LSD Research: An Overview
by Jessica Locke Del Greco
The purpose of this paper is to summarize the history of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) research and to discuss the manner in which this research influenced the evolution of society. Between the years 1947 and 1963, CIA and Army scientists examined, tested, and in some cases refined every drug which subsequently became available on the black market during the 1960's, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, PCP, amyl nitrate, mushrooms, DMT, barbituates, laughing gas, and speed, among others (Lee and Shalin, xx). In the course of this research, government scientists found, for example, that injections of cocaine produce free and spontaneous speech in catatonic schizophrenics within two days (Lee & Shalin, 11).
Information, such as this was virtually useless to the CIA and Army, however. Therapy was not the goal of their investigations. Mind control was. The government hoped to develop a method that would allow them to create an exploitable alteration of personality in potential agents, defectors, refugees, POWs, and in an unidentified group of others (Lee & Shalin, 10).
Of the drugs that CIA and Army scientists tested, LSD-25 seemed to have the highest potential for use in warfare and intelligence gathering. The government studied and utilized LSD extensively from the early fifties until 1963, when they stopped using it in favor of a stronger hallucinogen, BZ. Around this time, psychologists who had been steadily building an impressive amount of data that supported the therapeutic efficacy of LSD, were forced to halt their research also.
Certain psychologists, such as Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert of Harvard University, refused to comply with the new LSD regulations. They were dismissed from their posts and proceeded to educate the public about the spiritual and therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs.
This paper will be arranged in the following manner. First, I will describe the discovery of LSD. Next, I will review the history of CIA and military LSD research. Then, I will summarized the progression and repression of therapeutic LSD studies. Finally, I will discuss the cultural impact of LSD.
In 1938, Dr. Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist working for Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, was the first person to synthesize lysergic acid diethylamide. He developed the drug accidentally during an attempt to isolate an analeptic compound in ergot, a rye fungus with many medicinal alkaloids. LSD was the twenty fifth in a series of ergot derivatives he created while searching for the elusive circulatory stimulant. He quickly lost interest in the drug when it failed to produce significant results in preliminary studies on laboratory animals. (Lee & Shalin, xiv)
Hoffman did not rediscover LSD-25 until April 16, 1943 when he decided to conduct further studies on the compound. In the process of synthesizing a new batch, Hoffman absorbed a small dose of LSD through his fingertips. He described what happened next in a report he sent to one of his colleagues.
Three days after his accidental ingestion of LSD-25, Albert Hoffman began to research the compound in earnest. On April 19, 1943 he swallowed 250 micrograms. In his book, LSDMy Problem Child, Hoffman discusses the implications of his second, more intense LSD experience. First, to his knowledge, lysergic acid was the only known substance that could evoke such extreme psychic effects in such low doses. Hoffman had not expected the 250 microgram dosage to inebriate him. In fact, the possibility seemed so unlikely that Hoffman's colleagues would not believe he had measured the dosage correctly until they had ingested similar amounts of the compound. (Hoffman, 20)
What seemed even more significant to Hoffman was that his memory of the experience was not in the slightest bit marred. He was able to recall every aspect of the trip in minute detail. Nor was Hoffman out of sorts the following morning. Instead, he found himself in excellent physical and mental health, wondering how it was that a drug with the ability to produce such a powerful state of inebriation did not also produce a hangover. (Hoffman, 20)
Hoffman was optimistic about the implications of his discovery. "I was aware that LSD, a new active compound with such properties, would have to be of use in pharmacology, in neurology, and especially in psychiatry, and that it would attract the interest of concerned specialists" (Hoffman, 20).
Hoffman was correct. When LSD was introduced to the United States in 1949, for example, it was well-received by the scientific community, and because of the unique properties of the drug it appealed to groups of scientists with very different goals. Both the government, which was trying to develop mind-control techniques, and psychiatrists, who were attempting to develop more effective treatments for their patients, began testing the drug almost immediately. Before LSD became illegal, it was tested on over 40,000 people by psychologists alone.
Since 1942, government agents, then working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA's predecessor, had been making a concerted effort to locate a speech-inducing, personality-altering drug that could be used in interrogations. Because LSD, which was originally brought into the U.S. by Dr. Max Rinkel, was so powerful in small doses as well as odorless and tasteless, government officials were certain that it could be useful to them, they simply had to determine how. Perhaps as a result of their own military goals, they were concerned that LSD would be used by other nations against the citizens of the United States. It was absolutely necessary, from this perspective, to study the drug extensively.
I must back track a little in order to fully convey the circumstances under which LSD was embraced by the CIA and the military. When General William Donovan, chief of the OSS, assembled six prestigious scientists in the spring of 1942 to describe the covert research program that he wished for them to undertake, he was very clear about the government's motivation for this operation. He challenged the scientists to create a "substance that could break down the psychological defenses of enemy spies and POWs, thereby causing an uninhibited disclosure of classified information. Such a drug would also be useful for screening OSS personnel in order to identify German sympathizers, double agents, and potential misfits" (Lee & Shalin, 3).
Donovan appointed Dr. Windfred Overhusler chairman of the research committee. The group proceeded to test and reject various drugs including alcohol, barbituates, caffeine, peyote, and scopolamine, before marijuana was singled out as the substance that had the highest potential for inducing speech. (Lee & Shalin, 3-4)
The OSS proceeded to test marijuana on both witting on unwitting subjects, including themselves, their associates, U.S. military personnel, and American citizens. They determined that the best method of administration was the injection of THC into a cigarette or cigar. The effects of marijuana were described in the following OSS report.
Encouraged by these results, the OSS began to use marijuana on an operational basis until the drug proved to be too unreliable for their purposes. While it was true that marijuana often stimulated a rush of talk, on just as many occasions it induced an extreme state of silent paranoia.
When the war ended, the OSS was replaced by the CIA, which was eager, along with the military, to continue the research that the OSS had begun in 1942. The Navy initiated Project CHATTER in 1947, the same year that the CIA was formed. The results of the first LSD tests were also published in 1947 by Dr. Werner Stoll, a close colleague of Dr. Albert Hoffman. The purpose of Project CHATTER was to create a means for obtaining information from people without physical duress. One of the drugs tested during Project CHATTER was mescaline, a derivative of peyote that induces hallucinations similar to those produced by LSD. Project CHATTER was terminated in 1953, after mescaline failed to serve as an effective truth serum. (Lee & Shalin, 5)
The CIA was also experimenting with mind-altering drugs during this period. In 1951, their scattered efforts were combined to form a single program called Bluebird. Over time project Bluebird came to be called Artichoke, but the goal of the research did not change. The CIA wished to "'create an exploitable alteration of personality' in selected individuals, specific targets included 'potential agents, defectors, refugees, POW's' and a vague category of 'others'" (Lee & Shalin, 10).
In 1951, shortly after project Bluebird was launched, the CIA conducted an LSD pilot study to measure the effects of the compound on the subjects' ability to suppress experimental or nonthreat secrets. (Lee & Shalin, 13)
Shortly after this experiment, CIA researchers designed a study to determine optimal dosage levels of LSD for interrogation. This study included at least twelve subjects of below average intelligence. The subjects were informed that a new drug was being tested on them and that it was not dangerous. Even after the experiment, they were never given any further details. The researchers concluded that 100 to 150 micrograms was an optimal dosage. (Lee & Shalin, 14)
After determining this dosage range, the CIA began to further investigate the potential of LSD to act as a truth serum. They held a series of mock interrogation proceedings, and initially obtained promising results. CIA scientists prepared a memorandum entitled "Potential New Agent for Unconventional Warfare." This document stated, among other things, that LSD was useful for "eliciting true and accurate statements from subjects under its influence during interrogation" (Lee & Shalin, 14). The researchers also noted that LSD aided in the recovery of repressed memories.
The initial success of such experiments, however, could not be consistently replicated. Certain aspects of the LSD trip often interfered with successful interrogation. Unwitting subjects, for example, tended to become paranoid and silent as the effects of the drug set in. Other subjects experienced delusions of grandeur, becoming convinced that they could defy the interrogators indefinitely. Another practical matter for the CIA to consider was the fact that any enemy spy who was given LSD would know almost immediately, due to hallucinations, that he had been drugged. Scientists were also disappointed that memories of the period of inebriation were not destroyed after the drug wore off.
Unlike the other substances that the government studied, LSD was not discarded when it failed to prove itself a reliable. Instead the CIA and military expanded the scope of their testing, believing that such a powerful drug must have a practical application. LSD was used on an operational basis as an aid to interrogation from the mid-1950's until the early 1960's, but the CIA did not limit the employment of LSD to political targets.
In the early 1950's, the government became increasingly concerned that other nations, such as the USSR and China, where ergot flourished, would find a strategic use for LSD. In light of this suspicion, the CIA project committee decided in November of 1953 that personnel in all components of the agency should be dosed with LSD to demonstrate to them the effects of the hallucinogenic drug so they would prepared if an enemy should attempt to use it against them. Members of the agency who reacted anxiously to impromptu doses of LSD would be excluded from certain assignments. A new program, MK-ULTRA, was formed in this year to include the more comprehensive scope of LSD research. (Lee & Shalin, 17)
At first the LSD tests within the CIA were executed systematically. A typical experiment involved two agents secluding themselves in a room, ingesting the drug, and taking notes on their experiences. This analytical approach did not last long, however. CIA agents agreed that it was necessary for all personnel to undergo impromptu trips in order to properly prepare for the event of an enemy-administered dose of LSD. They began to randomly spike each others drinks with lysergic acid. No one in the agency was excluded from these impromptu trips, and their experiences ranged from mystical to disastrous. One CIA agent stated after his surprise ingestion, "I didn't want to leave it. I felt I would be going back to a place where I wouldn't be able to hold on to this kind of beauty." (Lee & Shalin, 30) Other, less fortunate agents reacted to LSD with extreme paranoid episodes.
In November of 1953, the first LSD-related death occurred. There is little doubt that the suicide of Dr. Frank Olson is the origin of the popular myth that people who take LSD are likely to jump from windows. Olson was unwittingly dosed with LSD during a three-day work retreat for CIA and Army technicians in the backwoods of Maryland. Olson, who had never ingested drugs before, was upset that he had been given LSD against his will. He became very withdrawn and depressed under the influence of the powerful substance and remained so after its effects subsided. When Olson returned home from the retreat he asked his boss to fire him, claiming that his behavior had ruined the LSD experiment that his colleagues had undertaken the preceding weekend. Three weeks later, Olson jumped head first through a closed window, falling ten stories to the pavement below.
Details of the events leading up to Olson's suicide remained confidential, primarily due to the fact that agents working under the MK-ULTRA program were preparing to launch into the next phase of LSD testing: the administration of LSD to unwitting American citizens in real-life settings and situations.
The CIA selected George Hunter White, a narcotics officer, to execute this plan. White was chosen on the basis of his experience with marijuana. He had organized the earlier experiments in which marijuana was tested on unwitting American citizens and was quite willing to conduct similar research with LSD.
White, funded by the CIA, rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and equipped it with two-way mirrors and surveillance cameras. He proceeded to lure artists up to his new home and surreptitiously dose them with LSD. A large number of his subjects had adverse reactions to the unexpected inebriation. In 1955, White was transferred to San Francisco, where he set-up two more of these "safe houses," as the CIA called them. At this time, Operation Midnight Climax was established. The purpose of this project was to study how sexual desires could be exploited by CIA agents. In exchange for $100.00 per night and a guarantee of legal immunity, drug-addicted prostitutes aided White and the CIA by picking up men from area bars and bringing them back to one of the safe houses. White watched from behind the two-way mirror while the men were given drinks laced with LSD and seduced by the prostitutes. The safe house experiments continued until 1963, when the government abandoned its LSD research and began to experiment with BZ, a stronger hallucinogen. (Lee & Shalin, 32-33).
During this time the CIA and military also tested LSD on approximately 1500 soldiers, for example, measuring the effects of LSD on their ability to perform routine drills (Lee & Shalin, 40). They also slipped LSD to certain world leaders, who were not identified specifically in CIA reports (Lee &Shalin, 50-1).
I was unable to locate any information about LSD research on government websites, but the following statement from the DEA site illustrates the dichotomy between the government's private and public actions in relation to LSD almost as well as White himself did, arresting drug users by day and dosing American citizens by night. According to the DEA, "America's social upheaval in the early 1960's dictated that a new, tougher approach to fighting drugs was warranted. Accordingly, in 1966 a new federal enforcement unit, BDAC…was created." Currently the federal penalty for a first LSD transportation offense is 40 years to life in prison and a fine of two to five million dollars.
While the government was testing LSD's military and espionage potential, a very different form of research was being carried out by psychologists in America, Canada, and various parts of Europe. Psychologists, unaware that the CIA and military were attempting to develop a method to employ LSD as a weapon, were investigating the therapeutic potential of the new drug.
In 1999, the most effective method (though "effective" may be an exaggeration) for treating alcoholics Alcoholics Anonymous. The goal of AA and of every twelve step program is to help the client develop a sense of spirituality that will replace the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. Typically this program requires years of hard work on the part of the subject and the therapist, but twelve-step spirituality does appear to successfully cure alcoholics and drug addicts who are thoroughly dedicated to the cause of sobriety. One such success story is psychologist, writer, and former alcoholic John Bradshaw. In his book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, which was assigned reading for a counseling class I took at UNH in 1998, Bradshaw describes the two years of agony that culminated in the completion one of the twelve steps that led him to sobriety.
Captain Al Hubbard, a former OSS spy, was acting in accordance with the theory that spirituality can induce sobriety when he began to administer LSD to hard-core alcoholics in the early 1950's. His private experiments were so successful that he established LSD treatment centers at three major hospitals in Canada. He also convinced other researchers, such as Dr. Humphrey Osmond, to exploit the spiritual aspects of the LSD trip.
Before Hubbard introduced Osmond to the spirituality theory of sobriety, Osmond had been using LSD to induce a nightmarish experience involving delirium tremors in his patients, believing that only those alcoholics who reached "rock-bottom" could recover. Osmond became convinced that Hubbard's method was preferable after he performed an experiment based on the new theory at Weyburn Hospital. Osmond administered a single high dose of LSD to 1000 hard-core alcoholics. Fifty percent of his subjects did not drink alcohol again. (Lee and Shalin, 50) Osmond continued this research for thirteen years, finally concluding that "LSD therapy can turn a large number of alcoholics into sober members of society. Even more importantly, this can be done very quickly and therefore very economically" (Lee and Shalin, 50).
In 1957, Osmond introduced the word "psychedelic" to the scientific community and suggested that LSD be utilized in psychotherapy. Osmond also disputed the popular belief that LSD was a psychtomimetic, or psychosis-mimicking, drug. (Lee & Shalin, 55) This brought about a major shift in perspective for psychologists who had been using LSD inebriation to study psychosis. Drugs such as thorazine, which is still used to treat schizophrenics in the U.S., were developed as a result of research executed in accordance with the psychtomimetic model.
Two forms of LSD therapy arose in the 1950's with the weakening of the psychometric paradigm: the Psycholytic, or mind-loosening, approach and Psychedelic therapy.
Psycholytic therapy involved low to moderate doses of LSD in combination with traditional psychotherapy. When it was employed in repeated sessions, LSD accelerated the process of self-exploration. It reduced psychological defenses and aided in the recovery of repressed traumatic experiences. This form of therapy was primarily used in England, where Dr. Ronald Standison established the first LSD clinic open to the public in 1953, inspiring the formation of similar clinics in many European countries. (Lee and Shalin, 56).
Psychedelic therapy, was more popular in the U.S. and Canada.. It involved the administration of high doses of LSD for the purpose of creating a mystical or conversion experience. Therapists, unknowingly acting under the watchful eyes of CIA field officers, served as guides, helping their patient assimilate his or her experience in a manner that would maximize personal growth. Therapists often ingested small amounts of the drug before therapy sessions so they could properly empathize with their patients.
Dr. Frank Ogden, who spent 9,000 hours working with 764 patients undergoing psychedelic therapy in British Columbia, recently sent an e-mail to a friend of mine who was kind enough to forward the message to me. Ogden, whose research is contained in the medical text The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism, included the original, un-edited report of his first psychedelic experience in this e-mail. Ogden states in the conclusion of his report, "I believe LSD has a wonderful future to help us understand the human mind. Both the mind that is sick as well as helping the mind that is well grow in perception…For me it was 99% wonderful."
Psychedelic therapy was tested on a broad selection of diagnostic categories including, but not limited to, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, narcotics addiction, and various character neurosis. (Shalin, 57) Patients continually stated that only a few LSD sessions had been more useful to them than years of psychoanalysis. Psychedelic therapy became a fad among politicians, writers, movie stars, and other members of the economic and intellectual elite during the 1950's, with actors such as Cary Grant publicly advocating the new treatment.
The first international conference on LSD therapy was held in 1959. At this meeting the dichotomy between the two major schools of thought inspired a major debate between those who still worked under the psychtomimetic model for the CIA and military and those who used LSD for therapeutic purposes.
The objectivist approach, represented by the government, would eventually dominate American opinion, governing FDA policy decisions and drug control laws through the present time. Psychologists tested LSD on approximately 40,000 patients, developing a huge data base of information which supported the efficacy of LSD in the treatment of many disorders, addictions, and various dysfunctional behaviors, but, in the end, this research amounted to nothing more than salvation for a selected group of fortunate patients and a waste of time and effort for psychologists who were searching for techniques that could be used legally to help all people live more fulfilling lives.
Many LSD researchers blamed Dr. Timothy Leary, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard, for the swift progression of policies that lead to the drug's illegal status. It seems highly unlikely that one man could provoke such a crackdown, but then it again, it also seems improbable that a single person could ignite the dramatic cultural revolution of the 1960's, as Leary arguably did.
Timothy Leary's undergraduate career began rather shakily. He attended West Point briefly, eventually dropping out because the other students ostracized him. He then enrolled at Alabama University, but was expelled for getting caught in one of the female dorms. After this expulsion, Leary did a short stint in the service, finally enrolling at the University of CA at Berkley, where he went on to receive his doctorate in psychology.
By 1960, when Leary had his first psychedelic experience, he had established himself as a prominent researcher in the field of psychology. Between 1954 and 1959, he served as the director of clinical research and psychology at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Oakland, California. He published extensively in scientific journals. One well-known study that Leary conducted at the Kaiser Foundation measured the progress of patients in psychotherapy against that of patients who were on a waiting list for therapy during a nine month period. The psychological community was quite shocked by the results, which indicated that the improvement ratios of the two groups were virtually identical. (Stevens, 20).
Leary also wrote a widely acclaimed text book about the interpretation of psychological tests. He developed a personality test himself called "The Leary," which the CIA and other organizations used to test prospective employees. (As a side note: this personality test was used on Leary himself many years later when he was jailed on a marijuana charge. He, of course, found this highly amusing.)
These accomplishments eventually lead Leary to an appointment at Harvard, where, inspired by an article in Life magazine and a personal experience with psilocybin mushrooms, Leary established a psilocybin research project in 1960 with the approval of the department chairman. Timothy Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert began by investigating the emotional and creative effects of psilocybin. Emotion and creativity are difficult to quantify, however, and Leary and Alpert eventually turned to more practical forms of psilocybin research.
In his famous Concord prison study, Leary administered psilocybin to 32 inmates in a maximum security prison in Concord, Massachusetts. He helped the prisoners assimilate their experiences in such a manner that only 25% of his subjects ever returned to jail again. Compare this to the typical recidivism rate of 80% at that time and in 1999. Psilocybin appeared to reform criminals more effectively than any method that had ever been used or has been used since. (Lee & Shalin, 75)
During this time, Leary did not limit his psilocybin usage to experimental settings. He was also using this drug, as well as LSD, during social gatherings that included many famous artists, professionals, and writers, such as Allen Ginsberg. In fact, it was Ginsberg who originally shaped Leary's belief that psychedelics could be used for mass social reform, insisting that the use of LSD should not be limited to the elite. As early as December of 1960, Ginsberg proclaimed to Leary, "We're going to teach people to stop hating…Start a peace and love movement" (Lee & Shalin, 76). The beat poet felt that Leary was ideally suited to head a psychedelic campaign designed to disseminate as much information as possible. Leary embraced this task wholeheartedly,
Leary, buoyed by this belief, convinced that the graceful evolution of the human species lay in the ability and freedom of each individual to intelligently manipulate his or her own nervous system and state of consciousness, proceeded to dedicate the remainder of his life to the cause. (Leary, iv)
In 1962, Timothy Leary published an article in the Journal of Atomic Sciences suggesting that the government prepare for a possible chemical attack from enemies. He recommended that they put LSD in city water supplies for the purpose of introducing American citizens to the nature of psychedelic inebriation. Government officials, who had already considered the possibility of water contamination by enemies and had subsequently determined that chlorine neutralized lysergic acid, denounced Leary.
In March of 1962, Leary's colleagues at Harvard confronted him during a faculty meeting, expressing their concern about the liberal manner in which he distributed psychedelics. A published account of this meeting lead to an investigation by the FDA, which determined that Leary was no longer permitted to administer psychedelics unless a medical doctor was present. By the end of that year Leary's research projects were officially terminated. Shortly after, Leary's colleague, Richard Alpert, was fired for giving LSD to an undergraduate. Three days later, Leary was also dismissed from the University on the grounds that he had failed to attend an honors program committee meeting.
The media frenzy that followed sparked the growth of the psychedelic underground. (Lee & Shalin, 88) Until his death in 1996, at age 75 Leary used various forms of media to educate the masses about the drug he thought of as the liberator of humankind. He used pamphlets, books, music, television, films, lecture circuits, and the Internet. All of Leary's post-Harvard writings, whether philosophical, scientific, or sociological were carefully geared toward the intellect and interests of the average American, written in a language that anyone could understand. For Example, Leary's book Info-Psychology: a Manual on the Use of the Human Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers, written in 1976 and originally called exo-psychology, describes DNA and Leary's model of human behavior and evolution in terms of a tarot deck. He, of course, took a great deal of flack from his former colleagues for employing such a ridiculous metaphor. His response: "The illustrative metaphors are not important. What is crucial to humanity's graceful mutation is the understanding and personal application of Einsteinian, neuro-genetic, quantum-physical perspectives of who we are and whom we choose to become" (Leary, X).
In the words of Jay Stevens, "The psychedelic experience might be as difficult to describe as the taste of ice-cream, but it had still attracted an enthusiastic and dangerous bunch of salesmen. First and foremost was Dr. Timothy Leary…Whether the psychedelic movement would have happened without Timothy Leary is a matter of debate, but there can be no question that he defined its public style" (Stevens, xv).
In 1962, the same year that Alpert and Leary were expelled from Harvard University, Congress enacted a law that made it virtually impossible for any person or organization, with the exceptions of the CIA and military, to obtain LSD for research purposes. In 1965, Congress passed the Drug Abuse Control Amendments under which the illicit manufacture and sale of LSD became a misdemeanor.
In 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy, whose wife had successfully undergone LSD therapy, lead a congressional probe into the organization and coordination of federal drug research and regulatory programs. After this probe, Kennedy concluded that regulatory agencies were thwarting potentially valuable research. The FDA ignored Kennedy's pleas for them to review the scientific reports pertaining to LSD. This data included approximately 1,000 clinical papers relating to 40,000 patients.
In 1968, the sale of LSD became a felony. In 1970, "psychedelics were placed in the Schedule I category - a classification reserved for drugs of abuse that have no medical value" (Lee & Shalin, 93) By this time, the CIA had created a backlog of more than twenty-six thousand new compounds to be screened for offensive use.
I will conclude this paper by briefly stating my opinions about LSD research. I think that the CIA and military were quite justified in studying this drug, however I feel that their methods were often sloppy and unethical and I do not personally sympathize with their goal. I was quite amazed to learn of the therapeutic efficacy of LSD and I think it is unfortunate that the current political climate would most likely not allow for the reconsideration of this psychiatric data. Finally, I think that it is impossible to place a moral value judgment on LSD. People who think it is a destructive drug have a large amount of evidence to support this claim. People who think it can be used constructively do also.
Jessica Locke Del Greco was born in New Hampshire and holds a B.A. in Psychology from UNH. In addition to writing for the Mind Mined Public Library, she has contributed many illustrations and graphics to the collection. She lives in Alton, NH.
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