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VA Should Let Doctors ‘Verbally’ Recommend Medical Marijuana Amid Coronavirus, Lawmakers Say

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Seven members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation are urging the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to allow VA physicians to verbally recommend medical marijuana to military veterans amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and shared exclusively with Marijuana Moment, stresses that Massachusetts has shuttered recreational marijuana shops during the COVID-19 crisis, which has driven some to transition to the medical cannabis dispensaries that remain open as essential services under the governor’s order. But because veterans may avoid registering as cannabis patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits and are now left without access to medicine, the lawmakers want VA to amend its policies, at least on a temporary basis.

“As this global pandemic continues to adversely affect veterans’ behavioral and physical health conditions, we believe that veterans who legally use cannabis in the Commonwealth to treat their ailments deserve to receive more robust assistance from qualified medical personnel at their local VA,” the lawmakers, including House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern (D-MA), wrote, adding that they feel VA should “consider making this directive the official policy” of VA on a permanent basis once the current health emergency is over.

It’s unclear what the practical impact of allowing VA doctors to make “verbal” recommendations would be, given that state medical marijuana certifications generally require a written component from doctors.

An aide to Warren told Marijuana Moment that the senator would ultimately like to see VA doctors be able to offer written recommendations and that the hope is the incremental reform could provide short-term relief to veterans and set the stage for broader policy changes down the line.

The staffer also noted that Warren is pushing for comprehensive federal marijuana legalization and wants medical cannabis products covered under VA insurance for veterans just like any other legal medication.

VA currently allows and encourages veterans to discuss their use of marijuana as a treatment for various ailments with their government doctors, but it specifically prohibits its physicians from issuing recommendations needed to register as a qualified patient under a state-legal program or from assisting in obtaining medical cannabis in any way.

“Veterans in Massachusetts use medical marijuana to treat a variety of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, chronic pain, and others,” the Wednesday letter, which was also signed by Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Katherine Clark, Seth Moulton, Ayanna Pressley and Joseph Kennedy III, all Democrats, states.

“For many veterans in Massachusetts, medical marijuana works in treating their health conditions, which can be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” they wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Therefore, during this unprecedented public health emergency, VA should issue a directive explicitly authorizing its health care providers to make sensible, clinically sound verbal recommendations to veterans related to participation in state-approved medical marijuana programs and services and to provide advice to veterans as they complete forms and other paperwork reflecting those recommendations.”

States that have medical cannabis programs generally require a licensed doctor’s signature in order for a patient to be certified, so the language around “verbal” recommendations by itself wouldn’t help veterans obtain legally protected patient status. But the letter has a suggestion for how VA personnel could help nonetheless.

“When veterans request advice on paperwork related to participating in a state-approved marijuana program, VA clinicians should be advised that they can make verbal referrals to knowledgeable non-VA providers who are registered with a state-approved program and can offer feasible options that minimize, or completely waive, the cost to the veteran,” the lawmakers wrote.

But veterans are already able to seek out written recommendations from non-VA physicians, and it’s not clear how VA would be able to facilitate a process where those private providers would waive or minimize costs, as the letter encourages.

That said, Debbie Churgai, interim director of Americans for Safe Access, told Marijuana Moment that she does not view the verbal recommendation caveat as “an extra hoop to jump through,” but rather as “an opportunity for many veterans to openly talk with and get acceptance and assistance from their VA physicians.”

If veterans are able to get verbal advice from VA doctors on how to fill out state applications to become registered patients and can be directed on the process of submitting them to relevant agencies, that would represent a positive development compared to the current system, where patients are completely on their own in navigating the process.

“I think having the ability to talk with their primary physician about cannabis and get verbal approval (i.e recommendation) from them is really huge and amazing news for veterans. Or at least it’s a tiny step in the right direction,” Churgai said. “Having a VA physician suggest cannabis as medicine with a verbal recommendation could help many patients open up their minds about cannabis as an option for treatment.”

She added that “this could help in court as well to protect physicians when talking about cannabis” because the current policy of allowing them to discuss it but not endorse it “could be seen as confusing, so for many this may help physicians feel more comfortable talking about cannabis with their patients.”

In their letter, the Massachusetts lawmakers went on to say that “VA clinicians who provide this temporary, limited assistance to veterans should be clearly advised by the VA that they will not be subject to disciplinary action,” and they urged “VA to work with the Justice Department to formally advise VA providers who conduct these clinical activities that they will not face criminal prosecution under federal marijuana laws.”

“By authorizing these tailored, temporary actions, the VA could help Massachusetts veterans who use, or are interested in using, medical marijuana receive more comprehensive clinical advice from their VA providers, reduce opioid addiction and substance use disorders, and achieve better health outcomes,” they concluded. “Finally, when this public health emergency ends, we urge VA to consider making this directive the official policy of the Department going forward.”

Advocates also say that such a policy change would be important because veterans should be empowered to discuss cannabis treatment, get a recommendation and continue that dialogue with a VA clinician they know and have an existing relationship with. It could help that VA doctors would be making referrals to credible non-VA physicians to complete the registration process, as well, instead of having veterans use less trustworthy cannabis-focused physician services that they have to find on their own.

Michael Liszewski, principal of the Enact Group, acknowledged that the move “would not necessarily facilitate a veteran being able to register with a state medical cannabis program” but said that “it does have some practical merit.”

“By encouraging vets to speak with their VA doctors from which they are receiving ongoing care, veterans would receive more fully-informed care,” he said. “While allowing referrals to trusted physicians outside the VA system to complete paperwork means veterans will still be paying out of pocket for the exam, the directive would ease the barrier.”

Clark, one of the representatives signing the new letter, has previously cited veterans’ access to cannabis in urging the Massachusetts government to reverse its decision to close recreational marijuana shops—which the governor said was necessary to prevent out-of-state consumers from visiting and potentially spreading the coronavirus.

A bill to allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations (without the “verbal” stipulation) was approved by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last month. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is the sponsor of that legislation, which was opposed by a VA official in an earlier hearing. The official said the the Drug Enforcement Administration advised against allowing the policy change.

“I’m appreciative of any attempt to broaden veterans’ access to cannabis. It’s an important step towards removing barriers that many veterans face when seeking care,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in response to the new push from the Massachusetts delegation. “During this time when we are recommending that those at risk distance themselves from others, that includes going to the doctor unnecessarily. Veterans deserve access to medical cannabis treatment at the recommendation of their physician, period. It’s past time we give them that unfettered access.”

The Congressional Budget Office released an analysis last month projecting that Blumenauer’s bill would have zero fiscal impact.

Outside of the veterans-specific issues related to federal marijuana policies during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s also a congressional push in the works to expand disaster relief benefits to marijuana businesses. And eleven senators sent a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership earlier this month, asking for a provision to future spending legislation that would allow cannabis companies to access Small Business Administration (SBA) programs.

SBA has stated that marijuana businesses—as well as those that work “indirectly” with the industry—do not qualify for COVID-related relief while cannabis remains federally prohibited.

Also, in a recent call with the Democratic Caucus, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) raised the issue marijuana banking access and, according to the congressman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she wanted to include language ensuring that cannabis businesses can access those financial services in an upcoming coronavirus stimulus package.

Read the lawmakers’ medical marijuana letter to VA below: 

Lawmakers Push VA On Medica… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Hemp Groups Push Federal Agency To Include Farmers In Coronavirus Relief Effort

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Colorado Activists File Revised Ballot Initiatives To Legalize Psilocybin And Establish ‘Healing Centers’

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Colorado activists have filed revised versions of a pair of 2022 ballot initiatives to legalize psilocybin and create licensed “healing centers” where people can use the psychedelic for therapeutic purposes. The move comes as state lawmakers have introduced a separate bill to require a study into the efficacy of plant-based psychedelics.

The ballot measures—filed by Kevin Matthews, the campaign manager behind Denver’s historic 2019 vote to locally decriminalize psilocybin and entrepreneur Veronica Perez—are similar to earlier versions the advocates filed with the secretary of state’s office last month, with a few key changes concerning the rollout of the reform, promoting equity and possession limits.

For the original initiatives, the campaign was considering two options: one would have legalized a wide range of entheogenic substances including DMT, ibogaine and mescaline, as well as establish a regulatory model for psychedelics therapy. The other would have initially enacted the reform for psilocybin and psilocin alone.

But recognizing that regulators would be faced with an onerous task to set up rules for multiple psychedelics, activists decided to take a different approach with the new measures. For both, there would be a two-tiered regulatory model, where only psilocybin would be legalized and regulated for therapeutic use until June 2026, after which point regulators could expand the policy change to include other psychedelics that are listed in the proposal.

“We really wanted to make sure that the administration had time to set up a proper regulatory structure—first for psilocybin and then for any further natural medicines,” Rick Ridder of RBI Strategies, a spokesperson for the campaign, told Marijuana Moment on Monday.

The decision to add additional psychedelics to the program would be made by the Department of Regulatory Agencies in consultation with a Natural Medicine Advisory Board that would be established. The board would be comprised of 15 members, including people who have experience with psychedelic medicine in a scientific and religious context.

Another major change from the prior versions is that the revised initiatives do not contain explicit “allowable” possession limits—a provision that had garnered pushback from certain Colorado activists when the original measures were filed.

And unlike the last two versions of the initiatives, these new measures also include specific provisions meant to “ensure the regulatory access program is equitable and inclusive and to promote the licensing of and the provision of natural medicine services” for people who have been disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization, who face challenges accessing health care, have “traditional or indigenous history with natural medicines” and military veterans.

Those rules could involve, but are not limited to, reduced licensing fees, reduced costs for low-income people and an annual review of “the effectiveness of such policies and programs.”

“I think what this is is a giant step forward for mental health treatment in the state of Colorado,” Ridder said. “As we’ve looked at the results of research throughout the world, we’re seeing very promising data related to particularly healthy people with PTSD, with suicidal tendencies and end-of-life. And this is just an opportunity to bring that kind of natural medicine and medicinal help to citizens here in Colorado.”

The two new initiatives are nearly identical to each other, except that one contains a component specifically authorizing people to petition courts for record sealing for past convictions that would be made legal under the proposal.

Under the proposals, the Department of Regulatory Agencies would be responsible for developing rules for a therapeutic psychedelics program where adults 21 and older could visit a licensed “healing center” to receive treatment under the guidance of a trained facilitator.

This latest filing comes more than two years after Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. Various activists, including those involved in the 2019 campaign, have signaled interest in building upon the reform.

The initiatives must still be assigned an official ballot title and summary from the state before they’re approved to begin signature gathering. The measures are scheduled to receive a review and comment hearing on February 3. If approved by state officials, activists will choose one of the measures to pursue and will then need to collect 124,632 valid signatures from registered voters to achieve ballot access.

The Colorado ballot initiatives seek to accomplish something similar to what California activists are actively pursuing. California advocates are in the process of collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Sen. Joann Ginal (D) and Rep. Alex Valdez (D) filed a modest bill last week to create a one-year plant-based medicine policy review panel that would be tasked with studying the “use of plant-based medicines to support mental health,” according to a summary. The ballot campaign is not affiliated with that legislative effort.


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.

“The policy review panel shall submit a report on its findings and policy recommendations to the House of Representatives Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, or any successor committees; the governor; and the Department of Human Services,” it says.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts to enact psychedelics reform are also underway in other states across the country.

For example, a bill to decriminalize a wide array of psychedelics in Virginia was taken up by a House of Delegates panel on Monday, only to be pushed off until 2023. But there’s still a separate but similar reform proposal that’s pending in the Senate.

Two Republican Oklahoma lawmakers recently filed bills meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, and one of the measures would further decriminalize low-level possession of the psychedelic.

A GOP Utah lawmaker also introduced a bill last week that would set up a task force to study and make recommendations on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and possible regulations for their lawful use.

In Kansas, A lawmaker also recently filed a bill to legalize the low-level possession and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms.

A Republican Missouri lawmaker introduced a bill this month to give residents with serious illnesses legal access to a range of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, ibogaine and LSD  through an expanded version of the state’s existing right-to-try law.

California Sen. Scott Wiener (D) told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that his bill to legalize psychedelics possession stands a 50/50 chance of reaching the governor’s desk this year. It already cleared the full Senate and two Assembly committees during the first half of the two-year session.

In Michigan, a pair of state senators introduced a bill in September to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of various plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.

Washington State lawmakers also introduced legislation this month that would legalize what the bill calls “supported psilocybin experiences” by adults 21 and older.

In Vermont, a broad coalition of lawmakers representing nearly a third of the House introduced a bill to decriminalize drug possession.

New Hampshire lawmakers filed measures to decriminalize psilocybin and all drugs.

Last year, the governor of Connecticut signed legislation that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.

At the congressional level, bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) this month, urging that the agency allow terminally ill patients to use psilocybin as an investigational treatment without the fear of federal prosecution.

Virginia House Committee Pushes Back Psychedelics Decriminalization Bill Until 2023, But Senate Proposal Still Pending

Photo courtesy of Dick Culbert.

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.
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Amazon Endorses GOP-Led Bill To Federally Legalize Marijuana

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Amazon, the second largest private employer in the U.S., is backing a Republican-led bill to federally legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.

The company’s public policy division said on Tuesday that it is “pleased to endorse” the legislation from Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who filed the States Reform Act in November as a middle-ground alternative to more scaled back GOP proposals and wide-ranging legalization bills that are being championed by Democrats.

“Like so many in this country, we believe it’s time to reform the nation’s cannabis policy and Amazon is committed to helping lead the effort,” the company, which previously expressed support for a separate, Democratic-led legalization bill, said.

Amazon has worked to adapt to changing marijuana policies internally as it’s backed congressional reform, enacting an employment policy change last year to end drug testing for cannabis for most workers, for example.

Months after making that change—and following the introduction of the States Reform Act—Mace met with Amazon and received the company’s endorsement, Forbes reported.

“They don’t want to sell it,” the freshman congresswoman said, adding that Amazon is primarily interested in backing the reform for hiring purposes instead of as a way to eventually sell cannabis. “It opens up the hiring pool by about 10 percent.”

Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said the bill “offers comprehensive reform that speaks to the emergence of a bipartisan consensus to end the federal prohibition of cannabis.”

Amazon’s drug testing decision was widely celebrated by reform advocates and industry stakeholders. Initially, the company only talked about ending the policy going forward. But it later disclosed that the policy change would also be retroactive, meaning former workers and applicants who were punished for testing positive for THC will have their employment eligibility restored.

The reason for the move away from marijuana testing was multifaceted, Amazon said at the time. The growing state-level legalization movement has made it “difficult to implement an equitable, consistent, and national pre-employment marijuana testing program,” data shows that drug testing “disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment” and ending the requirement will widen the company’s applicant pool.

The GOP congresswoman’s bill already has the support of the influential, Koch-backed conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

The measure would end federal cannabis prohibition while taking specific steps to ensure that businesses in existing state markets can continue to operate unencumbered by changing federal rules.

Mace’s legislation has been characterized as an attempt to bridge a partisan divide on federal cannabis policy. It does that by incorporating certain equity provisions such as expungements for people with non-violent cannabis convictions and imposing an excise tax, revenue from which would support community reinvestment, law enforcement and Small Business Administration (SBA) activities.

Marijuana Moment first reported on an earlier draft version of the bill in November, and it quickly became apparent that industry stakeholders see an opportunity in the Republican-led effort.

The reason for that response largely comes down to the fact that there’s skepticism that Democratic-led legalization bills—including the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that Amazon has also endorsed—will be able to pass without GOP buy-in. While Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, in addition to controlling the White House, the margins for passage are slim.

The MORE Act did clear the House Judiciary Committee in September, and a previous version passed the full House during the last Congress. Senate leadership is preparing to file a separate legalization proposal after unveiling a draft version in July.

Virginia House Committee Pushes Back Psychedelics Decriminalization Bill Until 2023, But Senate Proposal Still Pending

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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.
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Virginia House Committee Pushes Back Psychedelics Decriminalization Bill Until 2023, But Senate Proposal Still Pending

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A bill to decriminalize a wide array of psychedelics in Virginia was taken up by a House of Delegates panel on Monday, only to be pushed off until 2023. But there’s still a separate but similar reform proposal that’s pending in the Senate.

Advocates were hopeful that a House Courts of Justice subcommittee would advance the reform, especially after an amendment from the sponsor was adopted to more narrowly apply decriminalization to medical practitioners and people using psychedelics in treatment with a practitioner.

But following some discussion of Del. Dawn Adams’s (D) bill, members approved a motion to carry it over to next year to give the legislature more time to refine it and build support. It was a disappointment for activists, and there was particular surprise that the delay motion was made by House Minority Leader Charniele Herring (D)‎, who is well known for championing marijuana legalization in the state.

Adams said in her opening remarks before the subcommittee that she has “spent considerable time hearing from researchers, meeting with both local and nationwide community advocates, speaking with veterans and personally reading dozens of publications and studies about the benefits of plant medicine.”

“What I’ve been able to learn is that there is strong evidence to support plant medicines—once thought dangerous—that really are effective and safe treatments,” she said.

There seemed to be some confusion among certain members about what the legislation would actually do.


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.

One member asked whether doctors would be able to prescribe psychedelics and whether the state would “see peyote stores and psilocybin stores basically popping up.”

The bill as amended wouldn’t legalize psychedelics for medical or recreational use. It would simply make it so practitioners and people participating in psychedelics treatment would face a $100 fine for possessing peyote, ibogaine, psilocybin or psilocyn. Currently, such possession is considered a Class 5 felony.

Any dollars collected from psychedelics possession violations would go to the state’s Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund, which supports substance misuse treatment programs and drug courts.

But following testimony from advocates and researchers, Herring said that “there’s a lot of issues have been raised” and that she’d like to see a “prescription element” built into the legislation. Of course, because the psychedelics are federally controlled substances, doctors are precluded from prescribing them, but they could theoretically make recommendations, as is done in medical cannabis states.

In any case, the motion carried and that bill has now been set aside until next year. Now advocates are eager to see what happens with a separate, more limited reform measure that was considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

At that meeting, there was bipartisan support—including from the GOP minority leader—but also talk about making the decriminalization proposal more medically focused. The sponsor, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D), agreed to go back and make revisions so that the panel could reconsider it at a future meeting. The expectation was that it would be taken back up this week, but it’s not currently listed on the panel’s agenda for Wednesday.

The bill is scaled back compared to the House version because, as drafted, it would only decriminalize psilocybin and psilocyn by adults 21 and older. It’s unclear what kind of amendments the sponsor might offer when the committee takes up the legislation again.

At a recent virtual event organized by the reform group Decriminalize Nature Virginia, the sponsors of both bills participated as hosts, sharing their perspectives about the growing body of research indicating that psychedelics could be powerful tools to combat conditions like treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If the legislature does approve the legislation, it could face resistance from the state’s incoming Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, who has expressed concerns about implementing a commercial marijuana market in line with what the Democratic legislature and outgoing governor approved last year.

These psychedelics reform proposals are some of the latest to be introduced in state legislatures this session as the decriminalization movement spreads.

For example, two Republican Oklahoma lawmakers recently filed bills meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, and one of the measures would further decriminalize low-level possession of the psychedelic.

A GOP Utah lawmaker also introduced a bill last week that would set up a task force to study and make recommendations on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and possible regulations for their lawful use.

In Kansas, A lawmaker also recently filed a bill to legalize the low-level possession and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms.

A Republican Missouri lawmaker introduced a bill this month to give residents with serious illnesses legal access to a range of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, ibogaine and LSD  through an expanded version of the state’s existing right-to-try law.

California Sen. Scott Wiener (D) told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that his bill to legalize psychedelics possession stands a 50/50 chance of reaching the governor’s desk this year. It already cleared the full Senate and two Assembly committees during the first half of the two-year session.

In Michigan, a pair of state senators introduced a bill in September to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of various plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.

Washington State lawmakers also introduced legislation this month that would legalize what the bill calls “supported psilocybin experiences” by adults 21 and older.

In Vermont, a broad coalition of lawmakers representing nearly a third of the House introduced a bill to decriminalize drug possession.

New Hampshire lawmakers filed measures to decriminalize psilocybin and all drugs.

Last year, the governor of Connecticut signed legislation that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.

At the congressional level, bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) this month, urging that the agency allow terminally ill patients to use psilocybin as an investigational treatment without the fear of federal prosecution.

Oklahoma Republicans File Bills To Decriminalize Psilocybin And Encourage Research On Medical Benefits

Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

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.
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