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Rhode Island Lawmakers Debate How—Not Whether—To Legalize Marijuana At Hearing On Governor’s Plan

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A House panel in Rhode Island considered an adult-use marijuana legalization proposal from Gov. Daniel McKee (D) on Thursday along with three separate bills that would make significant reforms to the state’s current medical cannabis system.

While lawmakers did not act on any of the proposals, they asked detailed questions of the governor’s administration about how—not whether—to eventually legalize cannabis in the state.

Legislative leaders have repeatedly said that ending marijuana prohibition is “inevitable” in Rhode Island, but they’ve acknowledged that hammering out policies that can win broad backing might take some time. Reaching agreement on certain provisions, some lawmakers said this week, could prevent the policy change from happening this year, although others remain optimistic.

The chair of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Marvin L. Abney (D), stressed at the hearing that holding bills is routine and happens “if there’s work that needs to be done on the bill, which generally there is on almost all” pieces of legislation. “That is why we hold a bill for further study. We don’t hold it to kill it or anything like that,” he said.

The governor’s legalization plan, unveiled in March as part of his budget proposal, is one of two competing measures already introduced that would allow commercial cannabis sales to adults 21 and older. Senate leaders introduced their own legalization bill days before the governor’s announcement, but that measure wasn’t before the House panel this week.

On the Senate side, both measures were heard in a joint committee hearing in early April but were not voted on, and they’ve remained in a holding pattern since.

One of the most obvious differences between the two proposals, said Matt Santacroce, who heads the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR)’s Office of Cannabis Regulation, is how the new industry would be overseen. While the Senate bill would create a separate commission to regulate cannabis, the governor’s budget proposal would leave control to DBR, which currently runs the state’s medical marijuana system.

Santacroce offered the contrast in response to a question from Rep. Alex Marslakowski (D), who asked representatives of McKee’s administration who were present at the hearing “why we should choose one proposal over the other.”

“Sell me on it,” Marslakwowski said. “Why do you think theirs is better, theirs is worse?”

Santacroce told lawmakers that the department has had success working with medical marijuana licensees. The governor’s marijuana plan, Article 11 in his proposed budget, “aims to leverage that existing governance infrastructure, which is, you know, not creating anything new,” Santacroce said. Establishing an independent commission, as the Senate bill proposes, “takes both time and money.”

Santacruce added that the Senate leadership “clearly put a ton of work into this issue.”

“We’re very hopeful that we can get together and continue to have that conversation about where the shared areas agreement are and, to the extent there are differences, how to potentially reconcile those,” he said.

Beyond governance, the two proposals also differ on social equity and licensing provisions for people most impacted by the war on drugs, particularly communities of color, as well as taxes and other regulatory details. Some lawmakers said they were concerned the governor’s plan, which would add a 3 percent tax to medical marijuana cultivators, would raise the effective price on medical marijuana for patients.

So far no standalone legalization legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives, although Rep. Scott Slater (D), the panel’s vice chair, has previously indicated he’s might bring such a bill.

Slater, who is traveling this week, told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he is “trying to work on a legalization proposal” but that it “just gets so complicated because there are so many different interested parties.”

“I am hopeful that we can get a proposal in the budget,” he said. “I definitely see a path forward this year.”

As for his own proposal, Slater said it’s been difficult to craft specific policies that will win support among various stakeholders. “The real tough part is that there is already an existing medical community that wants to be included in a new market, and all the…advocates want licenses just dedicated to communities that have been harmed, which I understand.”

“What advocates in the industry do not understand is there [are] still a lot of people that think recreational cannabis is a bad idea,” he continued. “So I am trying my best but sometimes it feels like any legislation I put out will be ripped apart.”

Though lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing avoided outright debate about the governor’s proposal, Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D) asked a number of detailed questions about its provisions, probing legal liability around a lottery-based business licensing program and wondering about the accuracy and precision of roadside impairment tests for drivers. She also suggested possible incubator programs for small businesses and training programs at the University of Rhode Island to prepare young people to work in the newly legal industry.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D), meanwhile, noted that many local officials have complained about a provision in the measure that would require communities hold special elections in November if they want to opt out of allowing cannabis retailers. Local governments say those elections, especially on such short notice, would be burdensome. Communities that opt out would also receive a smaller cut of marijuana tax revenue.

During public testimony, the overwhelming majority of comments came in support of ending cannabis prohibition generally. But even some proponents of legalization urged lawmakers to reconsider certain provisions of the bill.

Social justice advocates, most notably, said the equity provisions in the governor’s proposal fall short of what’s needed to address the drug war’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Many noted that the proposal lacks automatic expungement provisions.

Others criticized the governor’s proposed social equity licensing provisions, which specify that the first five cannabis business licenses of every type would go to qualifying minority-owned businesses, which includes women-owned businesses.

Yet other commenters urged lawmakers to adopt language allowing cooperative grow models among individuals rather than requiring consumers to buy products from for-profit businesses.

The House Finance Committee also took up three separate bills on Thursday that would make changes to the state’s existing medical marijuana program, which critics have said is too restrictive, especially with residents able to bypass the system by simply driving to nearby states that have legalized cannabis for all adults.

One, HB 5452, would require the state Department of Business Regulation to analyze the licensing system from a social equity and racial perspective and move to eliminate barriers to entry for people most impacted by prohibition to participate in the industry. Another, HB 5451, would earmark marijuana tax revenue for a “distressed communities relief fund,” as well as charitable organizations that legislative leaders would select each year.

Both measures were introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams (D), who said the state’s existing medical marijuana system has perpetuated the status quo of white business owners profiting while people of color are largely cut out of the industry. As “has been a practice for eons,” she said, the state is “overlooking or dismissing the needs of the community of color, the urban core.”

“The truth hurts sometimes,” she added, “and people are so concerned about talking about reality.”

One of the panel’s Republican members, Rep. George A. Nardone, questioned HB 5451’s provision that would allow legislative leaders to earmark a portion of leftover cannabis revenue to unspecified nonprofit organizations. “It’s going to be giving unbridled power to both the speaker and the Senate president to spend it on the charity of their choice?” he asked.

Williams replied that it’s “not necessarily a charity of their choice,” but added that “I always like to respect my leadership, and that percentage would definitely be with them.”

“Trust me, and believe me, they may be in there, but trust me that the recommendations and suggestions are going to come from the people,” she said.

The third bill, HB 5453, would eliminate a series of existing regulations for the state’s medical cannabis program such as the plant-tagging system for patients and caregivers who want to cultivate marijuana. Annual dispensary license fees would be slashed from $500,000 to $5,000, and the cap on the number of shops that could operate would be removed and instead tied to the state’s population.

Further, the definition of who could qualify as a medical marijuana patient would be significantly expanded to include “any serious health condition a reasonable practitioner believes, based on their experience, knowledge, and reasonable judgment as a health care provider, could be alleviated or treated through the use of medical marijuana.” Nurse practitioners, and not merely doctors, would be allowed to recommend cannabis.

The bill’s sponsor, Slater, who is also considering introducing House legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis, has previously described the medical marijuana reform measure as establishing a “de facto recreational program.”

Both the governor and the Senate leaders’ adult-use legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

Gov. McKee said in January that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and signaled that he was “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.

The growing momentum in Rhode Island also comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) included a cannabis legalization plan in his budget request last month.

Lawmakers in New York passed legalization legislation in March that was promptly signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said the legislation “is a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs that has plagued our state for too long.”

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Senate approved a bill last month that would allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing last month on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

Maine Proposal Would Legalize Psilocybin Mushroom Therapy For Adults, No Medical Diagnosis Needed

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Politics

Mississippi Lawmakers Float Special Session To Restore Medical Marijuana Following Supreme Court Ruling

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Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins.

By Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

A special legislative session is being discussed by political leaders in the wake of last week’s explosive ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court striking down both the state’s new medical marijuana program and the entire initiative process where citizens can gather signatures to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.

Sources close to the issue said that lawmakers have broached the issue of a special session with Gov. Tate Reeves’s (R) office.

Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins. And it would take even longer to re-instate the initiative process since it would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and then approval by voters presumably during the November 2022 general election.

During a special session, legislators could have an opportunity to create a medical marijuana program and perhaps to fix the language in the state’s initiative process that resulted in last week’s Supreme Court ruling.

House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) says he supports Reeves calling a special session to allow legislators to reinstate the state’s initiative process.

“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative and referendum process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said in a statement. “If the legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people.”

Efforts to garner comments from Reeves and Lt. Gov Delbert Hosemann (R), who presides over the Senate, have been unsuccessful thus far. On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, told the Daily Journal in Tupelo, “Like most Mississippians, Gov. Reeves is interested and intrigued by the Supreme Court’s decision on the recent ballot initiative. He and his team are currently digesting the Court’s 58-page opinion and will make further comment once that analysis is complete.”

Senate President Pro Tem Dean Kirby, (R), said he has not heard discussions about a special session, but said, “I would not be opposed to a special session” to take up the issue of medical marijuana. He pointed out the Senate passed a bill earlier this year in the 2021 session that would have put in place a medical marijuana program if the Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative. The House did not take up the Senate proposal, opting to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.

Kirby said he had not studied the issue of whether there should be an effort in special session to take up fixing the entire initiative process.

Rep. Robert Johnson, (D), the House minority leader, who was critical of last week’s Supreme Court ruling, said he would support a special session to take up both issues.

Secretary of State Michael Watson (R), who oversees state elections and the initiative process, said via social media he also supports the governor calling a special session.

“I strongly encourage Gov. Reeves to call a special session to address this issue,” Watson said, adding that the issue of medical marijuana also should be taken up during a special session. Watson also said the Legislature should take steps to ensure initiatives approved earlier by voters are not rendered void by the Supreme Court decision released Friday afternoon.

In a 6-3 ruling last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and in the process voided the state’s initiative that has been in effect since 1992.

In the process of voiding the process, six initiatives that were at varying stages of trying to garner the required number of signatures were killed. Those efforts were:

  • Expanding Medicaid.
  • Enacting early voting.
  • Enacting term limits.
  • Legalizing recreational marijuana.
  • Giving voters the opportunity to restore the old flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem in its design.
  • Replacing the 1890 flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem. That already has been done by the Legislature.

The Supreme Court ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the city of Madison and its mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler. The lawsuit alleged the initiative process should be voided because the Constitution requires the signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts as they were configured in 1990. In 2000, the state lost a U.S. House seat based on U.S. Census data, rendering it impossible to gather the signatures as mandated in the Constitution, the lawsuit argued.

The state’s highest court agreed.

Also at issue is two initiatives that passed in 2011 where the signatures were gathered from the original five congressional districts and whether they will be efforts to challenge those proposals. Those initiatives enacted a requirement to have a government-issued photo ID to vote and a prohibition on the government taking private land for the use of another private entity. After voters approved placing the voter identification issue in the Constitution, it also was approved as general law by the Legislature. So, if the voter ID initiative is struck down, it is not clear how it would impact the general law.

When asked if the Southern Poverty Law Center might challenge the voter ID initiative based on the Supreme Court ruling, Brandon Jones, policy director with the group, said “Like a lot of other folks, we are in the very early states of considering options for voters and the issues impacted by last week’s ruling. We haven’t made any decision yet.”

SPLC also would have been heavily involved in the effort to pass a Medicaid expansion initiative had it not be halted by the Supreme Court ruling.

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

Voters In Conservative Louisiana Districts Support Legalizing Marijuana, Poll Shows With House Vote Scheduled

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Minnesota Lawmakers Approve Smokable Medical Marijuana As Broader Legalization Stalls

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A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota that recently passed the House isn’t advancing in the Republican controlled Senate this session—but advocates scored a different kind of victory on Monday when it comes to expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.

That includes legalizing smokable forms of marijuana for registered patients.

Over the weekend, a bicameral conference committee approved the reform, in addition to several other marijuana-related changes, as part of an omnibus health bill. The House adopted that report on Monday in a 77-57 vote, and the Senate followed suit in a 66-1 vote, sending it to the governor’s desk.

This is just the kind of compromise that House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), sponsor of the broader legalization measure that moved through 12 committees before being cleared by the chamber, predicted would come about in the face of GOP resistance to the idea of ending prohibition altogether.

The most significant change to Minnesota’s medical cannabis program would allow adults 21 and older to access smokable marijuana products. If the final legislation is signed by the governor, that policy would have to take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.

There are few remaining states that have medical cannabis programs in place but where smokable products are still prohibited. The Louisiana House approved a bill to allow access to flower products, and it’s heading to the Senate floor. In Alabama, the governor has a medical marijuana legalization bill on her desk that would include a ban on smokable cannabis.

Back in Minnesota, dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the proposed omnibus legislation. The report further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.

“Over the course of 12 public hearings this year and a statewide tour visiting 15 communities, Minnesotans were loud and clear that our state’s medical cannabis program was too expensive, and that allowing flower could significantly improve access,” Winkler said in a press release.

“As a result of Minnesotans who made their voices heard over the course of years—whether you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, a person with a serious health condition, or a parent with a sick child—more people will gain the ability to live healthy, fulfilled lives,” he said. “Without Minnesotans’ activism and personal stories, and without a historic vote in the Minnesota House to legalize cannabis for adult use, this accomplishment would not have been possible.”

There was one change attached to the health bill that could be of concern to advocates. It would make it so regulators could remove health conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana if they receive a petition from a member of the public or a task force. Currently, the commissioner is only able to approve new conditions or modify existing ones.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Still, activists are excited about the overall expansion of the program under the legislation.

“Quite contrary to the claim of some GOP members that reforms to the state’s restrictive medical cannabis program are the ‘backdoor’ to full legalization, the adult-use bill helped open the front door this session for the sorely needed reforms patient advocates have been working toward for years,” Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, told Marijuana Moment.

These are generally positive developments for advocates and patients, but there’s still disappointment over the fact that Winkler’s full legalization bill has stalled in the Senate.

Gov. Tim Walz (D), who hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue in recent weeks as the legislation has advanced, weighed in on the House passage of the legislation on Friday.

“I’ve thought for a long time about that,” he said, adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”

“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”

“I know a lot of states—other states, conservative states like South Dakota—others have done this. I think there’s a way to do it,” he added. “I say that as a father of a 14-year-old. I certainly don’t encourage it. I certainly wouldn’t encourage my son to over-abuse alcohol. I wouldn’t encourage him to do some of those things, but when adults are of a certain age I trust them to make a good decision.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), meanwhile, reiterated his opposition to legalization in an interview with WCCO-TV over the weekend, though he said medical cannabis expansion and lowering criminal penalties for marijuana are areas of interest.

“What I do think we should continue to explore is lowering the criminal offenses—and are there medical reasons that we’re missing?” he said. Those are two things that I hear a lot of, but just making recreational marijuana illegal, I don’t think that’s wise.”

Rep. Rena Moran (D), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, commented in a separate interview with the station that cannabis criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and has funneled “way too many people into the criminal justice system.”

While it seems the legislature is heading into a special session to pass the state budget after not being able to get it done by Monday’s end of the regular session, it seems unlikely that the Senate would be willing to take up the legalization bill during that time.

The majority leader’s legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.

Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.

On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.

Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.

The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.

People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.

Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.

Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.

The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.

In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.

Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

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The governor of Alabama on Monday signed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state that was sent to her desk earlier this month.

Following the measure’s passage, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signaled that she intended to sign after “thoroughly reviewing it.” But while there was a general expectation that she would recommend amendments, she signed it as is.

While the measure was approved with a two-to-one margin in both the House and Senate, some Republican lawmakers vigorously opposed its passage, staging a lengthy filibuster that delayed the final votes.

“Signing SB 46 is an important first step,” Ivey said in a press release. “This is certainly a sensitive and emotional issue and something that is continually being studied. On the state level, we have had a study group that has looked closely at this issue, and I am interested in the potential good medical cannabis can have for those with chronic illnesses or what it can do to improve the quality of life of those in their final days.”

In addition to being able to sign or veto the bill, Ivey had had the opportunity to propose line-item amendments and send it back to lawmakers, who could then approve or reject them. But she apparently did not see the need to pursue that option.

“As research evolves, [Sen. Tim Melson (R)] and I discussed how critical it is to continue finding ways to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe and responsible operation in Alabama,” the governor said.

While Ivey hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue, she was asked about a prior medical cannabis legalization bill in 2019 and said, “I’m still trying to get the details, but if it’s tightly controlled and limited to just those illnesses as verified by medical professionals, it’d be worth considering.”

A restrictive medical marijuana bill is essentially what lawmakers sent to the governor.

Under the legislation as approved, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions.

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth (R) expressed support for the reform—and he called on lawmakers to send the bill to the governor ahead of their final votes.

“I support legalizing medical marijuana to help those with cancer and other serious medical issues ease their pain,” he posted on Twitter. “The majority of the medical community agrees. The Alabama House should pass this important bill before the session ends.”

Ivey signed a bill in 2019 that established a medical cannabis study commission. That piece of legislation was originally a medical marijuana legalization bill that cleared the Senate but then was gutted in the House.

Late last month, the governor signed another bill that expands expungement eligibility for certain convictions, including misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

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