Monday, March 29, 2010 

Fear, panic and politics win yet again.

If ever there was a purer example of how fear, panic and politics will always win out against rationality, cold reflection and research, it's in the proposed fast-track criminalisation of Mephedrone, "Meow Meow" or 4-MMC, or whatever you want to call it. It also marks the final capitulation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which having previously argued against the government's reclassification of cannabis from Class C to Class B, and having urged that Ecstasy be downgraded to C now seems to have decided under its new leadership to simply act as the pseudo-scientific justificatory rubber stamp that the government needs.

On the face of it, the ACMD is justifying its quick decision on the grounds that 4-MMC, rather than being an actual new drug, is rather more simply an amphetamine masquerading as a designer drug. The precedent for classifying it more quickly than it usually would was last year's ban on "Spice", marketed somewhat similarly to how 4-MMC has been, but which has definitively been identified as containing synthetic cannabinoids. This is in difference to 4-MMC, which has been identified as being based on cathinone compounds found in khat, but as yet has not been so conclusively independently examined. Khat is also not illegal in this country, having been considered by the ACMD for possible criminalisation in the past, but felt to be "safe" enough for it be left outside classification, although cathinone and cathine themselves are classified as Class C. Spice has also been around for a lot longer than 4-MMC, having first been sold back in 2002, while 4-MMC dates only from three years ago.

A far more appropriate response from a council interested in actual evidence rather than anecdote would have been to delay making a recommendation until more research had been conducted. Indeed, it's almost certainly what the previous head of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, sacked by Alan Johnson for criticising the government over their failure to reclassify Ecstasy following the committee's advice would have recommended. Nutt has also suggested that a new classification, a so-called Class D, should be introduced under which "new" drugs like 4-MMC could be temporarily classified until more is known about them. This would allow them to be sold but place such substances under far stricter regulation than the current free-for-all, which will incidentally continue if it is criminalised but instead mean that it will be organised crime rather than legitimate businesses in control of the supply. It's not just Nutt calling for such a change, but also the UK Drug Policy Commission, which is referring to its similar suggestion for a new emergency classification as "Category X".

With the resignation of so many members of the ACMD in protest at the sacking of Nutt and the government's general attitude towards its previous advice, the latest coming only this morning, it's difficult not to wonder whether those being pushed forward as replacements are not already more in tune with the government's favoured point of view. Even if this is a slur on their characters, then the pressure on them to make a quick decision could hardly be greater. The last month has seen what was already a stream of concern about Mephedrone turn into a veritable torrent, with the tabloids seemingly determined to whip up a moral panic, as hopefully this blog has identified. Not content with just further promoting the drug, as those supplying 4-MMC have themselves made clear the media's coverage has done, regardless of its tone, they've been actively lying about how schools supposedly couldn't confiscate it from students, selectively quoting from ministerial letters in order to continue the charade. Combined with the relatives of loved ones who believe their children have died as a result of taking 4-MMC, ignoring that almost all those who have died after using it were also taking other (illegal) drugs at the same time, politicians have had to make clear That Something Must Be Done, and will be done. Gordon Brown last week actively described an inanimate substance as "evil"; under such an atmosphere, and with an election only just over a month away, it's difficult to believe that even if the ACMD has asked for more time the government would have agreed. Instead, 4-MMC's criminalisation is to be rushed onto the statute books, and with Conservative support, seems certain to become law before the election.

This is the worst of all possible worlds. The very first step of criminalisation is that the price of the drug, which has been relative low, will sky rocket. Those that have become somewhat dependent on it, although again the evidence for this is only anecdotal, and if the drug is closer to amphetamine than methamphetamine addiction tends to be mental rather than physical (although withdrawal doesn't care which is which) will have to find the extra money to pay for it, which usually leads to acquisitive crime, or to switching to a substitute, the most likely of which are either speed or crystal meth. Due to their illegality, drugs which may well have previously been "pure" are far more likely to be doctored or watered down, potentially with far more harmful substances in the case of the former, or leading to the user needing even more in the case of the latter. As mentioned above, where previously "legal high" and drug paraphernalia shops as well as "entrepreneurs" have been supplying and selling 4-MMC, the usual lowlife will now be moving into the breach. Far be it from me to defend capitalism, but where previously the legitimate economy has at least been somewhat benefiting from the rise in popularity of 4-MMC, we're now going to see all of that growth cut off, which is clearly just the government should be doing when we're trying to pull fully clear of recession. Lastly, as 4-MMC is a so-called designer drug, there's nothing to stop a replacement being developed and appearing on the streets potentially within months, with this entire cycle repeating.

All we're doing is moving from a state of affairs where there was little known about the dangers of the drug but it was legal is to one where the position is the same but the drug is illegal. Even while the police claim that they'll be targeting "dealers", which until the criminalisation becomes law are perfectly legitimate businesses and individuals, there will still certainly be cases where recreational users will be charged and prosecuted simply for wanting to make their weekends slightly better. The very same politicians that would never argue for the prohibition of alcohol or tobacco, not just because they enjoy it themselves but also because history shows us that it doesn't work are perfectly prepared to criminalise others for their different choice of psychoactive substances. The policy of drug prohibition will one day be seen in exactly the same terms as that of alcohol prohibition, but it won't be until at least the last generation either retires or is removed from power.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010 

Scum-watch: A great victory for liars.

How then do you respond when it turns out you've been telling ludicrous lies, claiming that teachers couldn't confiscate 4-MMC when any actual teacher would have told you the absolute opposite?

Easy. Claim that the rules have been changed because of your highlighting of the problem:

TEACHERS were given the power to confiscate killer drug meow meow yesterday - in a victory for The Sun.

After dithering for days, Mr Coaker wrote to every head in England, saying: "Schools do have the power to confiscate inappropriate items, including a substance they believe to be mephedrone (or any other drug whatever its legal status). They do not have to return such confiscated substances."

As is abundantly clear, this is Coaker just reiterating what the current rules are. Here's part of his letter to schools unedited:

Some questions have been raised as to whether teachers can confiscate such substances, given that they are not prohibited substances. As current guidance makes clear, schools do have the power to confiscate inappropriate items, including a substance they believe to be mephedrone (or any other drug whatever its legal status) in line with the schools behaviour policy. They do not have to return such confiscated substances. As School discipline and pupil behaviour policies: Guidance for schools makes clear, schools may choose not to return an item to the pupil, including

  • Items of value which the pupil should not have brought to school or has misused in some way might – if the school judges this appropriate and reasonable – be stored safely at the school until a responsible family adult can come and retrieve them.
  • Items which the pupil should not have had in their possession – particularly of an unlawful or hazardous nature – may be given by the school to an external agency for disposal or further action as necessary. This should always be followed by a letter to the parents confirming that this has taken place and the reasons for such an action.

The Sun's claims that teachers had to give back 4-MMC to students as it isn't yet illegal have thus been utter nonsense from the very beginning, and their editing of Coaker's letter is cynical and misleading in the extreme.

Nonetheless, the paper's leader continues to claim that it's all thanks to them:

IN a victory for The Sun, teachers are told they DON'T have to give back a deadly drug seized from pupils...What's surprising is that there was a millisecond's doubt.

Day was when school heads could dictate what their pupils wore, how they behaved and whether they could use mobile phones during class.

Never mind not handing back meow meow because it is technically legal.

Makes you wonder precisely what those who run our schools these days are taking.

Or rather, it makes you wonder what those who write the newspapers are taking these days. The idea that heads don't decide on what pupils wear, how they behave or whether they can use mobile phones isn't just beyond ignorant, it's an outright lie. It really is impossible not to absolutely hate the scaremongering liars who write for the Sun, and to be incredibly fearful of the power which they continue to wield, both over this government and the one likely to come.

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Friday, March 19, 2010 

Scum-watch: The anti-Conservative bias of Basil Brush.

Has the BBC done something I haven't noticed to upset the Murdoch stable? I know there doesn't generally need to be a reason for the Sun to attack the corporation, only it seems rather odd to suddenly decide to "investigate" the inherent "bias" that the Beeb has against the Tories, especially when the evidence produced is so completely laughable. In fact, laughable really doesn't do justice to the dossier they've produced to prove that the BBC favours Labour over the Tories: pathetic, hilarious and carpet-chewingly insane only begin to describe the scraping of barrels involved.

This apparently is the best that Tom Newton Dunn and Kevin Schofield could come up with:

BBC News gave disproportionate coverage to the row over Tory donor Lord Ashcroft's tax status;


The BBC's Lord Ashcroft coverage alone triggered 104 complaints.

When the row over his "non-dom" status broke three weeks ago it led the Beeb's TV and radio bulletins for up to six days - long after commercial broadcasters dropped it.

But controversy over the similar status of up to eight Labour donors got just a fraction of the coverage.

Taking the Sun's word for it that it did lead broadcasts for up to six days, that doesn't seem "disproportionate" when compared to the coverage not just on other "commercial broadcasters" but to that in newspapers, another prism through which it should be judged. It certainly is however disproportionate when compared to the Sun's coverage of the Ashcroft affair, which to judge by the reports on their website was a complete non-story. There are only three reports dedicated to the revelations concerning Ashcroft's non-dom status, all of which are either favourable or overwhelmingly favourable to the Tories: the first is headlined Tory Lord vows to pay full tax, the second is a report on the spat between Labour and the Tories over non-doms, and the third is on Ashcroft being cleared over the donations to the Tories through his Bearwood Corporate Services company.

Next, and we're already onto hardly the most convincing of evidence:

LABOUR panellists were given more time to speak on flagship political show Question Time;


The Sun's analysis showed Labour politicians on Question Time were allowed to speak for a full minute longer than Tory counterparts.

On March 11 ex-Labour minister Caroline Flint got SIX minutes more than Tory Justine Greenings.

And on February 18 Labour veteran Roy Hattersley spoke for nearly three minutes longer than Tory Rory Stewart.

This couldn't possibly be anything to do with the Tory politicians giving shorter answers rather than not being allowed to speak, could it? There's also the minor point that if you're not the first to be called on, the others can rather steal your thunder with their answers, hence there being no point going over the same ground. Also worth keeping in mind is that as Labour are in government the audience often directly ask questions of them, and are sometimes also given an opportunity to respond to a criticism of the government either from a member of the panel or the audience. None of this is evidence of bias, and if the politicians themselves are annoyed with how much time they've been given they can take it up with the producers afterwards, which there has been no indication of them doing, or even during the show if they so wish by complaining to David Dimbleby. Incidentally, there is no such politician as Justine Greenings; there is however a Justine Greening.

A POLL on The One Show ignored issues with Gordon Brown to ask only, Is David Cameron too much of a toff to be PM?


A total of 219 viewers complained about The One Show poll, which followed a five-minute piece about Mr Cameron's "posh" upbringing.

Dozens more wrote on the show's blog.

One said: "The BBC should be ashamed of its blatant electioneering."

That would be the One Show which is renowned for its high standard of investigative journalism, would it? For those imagining that this happened recently, it was in fact screened over two months ago, and the BBC said that the piece wasn't good enough at the time. They have since ran in-depth looks at all of the political parties. In any case, why isn't Cameron's background a reasonable topic for discussion? As the New Statesman points out, Cameron hasn't received anywhere near the same amount of scrutiny as Brown.

THE Tory leader was stitched up when footage of him adjusting his hair was sneakily fed to all broadcasters;


Last week bosses tried to make Mr Cameron look a laughing stock by putting out footage of him checking his hair in the wind before making a serious statement on Northern Ireland.

Party chiefs complained.

And who was it that initially shot this footage? Why, that would be Sky News, who may themselves have "sneakily fed" it to all broadcasters, or they could have picked it up from YouTube. Sky News we should point out, has absolutely no connection to the Sun whatsoever. They just provide the video on the Sun's website. Oh, and the ultimate parent company of the Sun controls a third of the shares in Sky. Apart from that they're completely separate entities.

Lastly, the real clincher:

THE Basil Brush Show featured a school election with a cheat called Dave wearing a blue rosette.


Then last Sunday BBC2's Basil Brush Show featured nasty "Dave" - complete with blue rosette.

He beat nice Rosie, with a purple rosette, by promising free ice cream but was arrested because it was out of date.

No, I'm not making this up. The Sun really is trying to suggest that Basil Brush is biased against the Conservatives. Then again, perhaps it isn't so ridiculous: after all, the Tories have promised to bring back fox hunting. To be serious when perhaps it doesn't deserve it, when you start seeing political bias in a children's programme featuring a puppet fox, it really might be time to start questioning your own sanity. In any case, and because I'm truly sad, I went and looked to see when this episode was made: surprise, surprise, it was first broadcast on the 22nd of October 2004, before the last election, let alone this one. Unless the Sun is suggesting that the writers of Basil Brush are so prescient that months before David Cameron became Conservative party leader they were already out to get him, this really can be dismissed as the mouth-frothing madness that it is. They also got the girl's name wrong: she's Molly, not Rosie.

Away from ludicrous accusations of bias, the paper is still trying to claim that teachers are having to give 4-MMC back to students they confiscate it from:

DEADLY drug meow meow is rife in prisons, warns the Justice Department.

An urgent memo urges governors to stop inmates getting hold of it.

Yet while the Government protects convicts, it won't save schoolchildren. Teachers must return confiscated meow meow to pupils even though it may kill them.

Just in case you didn't take my own word for it, some actual journalists as opposed to scaremongering tabloid hacks bothered to ask both teachers and police what their real approach to 4-MMC is:

Despite national reports claiming teachers would be forced to hand back seized packets of mephedrone at the final bell, Plymouth police and the vice-chair of the Association of Secondary Head Teachers in Plymouth, Andy Birkett, have insisted it will not happen here.

"We already have effective policies to deal with substances found in schools; if we're in any doubt we ask the expert's opinion," said Mr Birkett.

"The police have always advised us that if we don't know what we've seized, regardless of what the child tells us, then call the police. We seek to put the child's safety and the safety of the school first and will hand over such items to police.

"As far as we're concerned, nothing has changed. We'll deal with this drug in the same way we always have."

Drug liaison officer Det Con Stuart Payne said: "The advice we have given schools is if they seize a suspected item, then they can give it to us to deal with.

"The school may wish to deal with the matter in-house or they may wish to tell us who it came from. People should note that current force policy is that those found in possession of the suspect powder will be arrested.

"It should be remembered that samples of mephedrone we have already seized have been mixed with controlled drugs, including cocaine and amphetamine, or legal drugs such as benzocaine, which is used by dentists. It emphasises that you don't know what you're taking."

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Thursday, March 18, 2010 

Scum-watch: Fuelling a moral panic over Mephedrone.

This whole post comes with a very hefty hat-tip to Carl, a crime reporter on a local newspaper.

If yesterday's reporting on Mephedrone or 4-MMC was slightly hysterical, then we now seem to be moving into full moral panic territory. Moral panics are not just driven by exaggeration and overreaction through fear, but directly fuelled by downright lies, obfuscation and completely inaccurate media reporting, all of which has come together in today's Sun in a quite remarkable fashion.

Not content with just wanting 4-MMC to be banned, it seems determined to inflate the number of deaths associated with it, claiming that there have been 5 while only 1 has today been directly linked to the drug, but also spreading likely myths. The paper is suggesting that "dealers" are adding Crystal Meth to it, which seems highly unlikely on two grounds: firstly that Meth is not a popular drug in this country, especially when compared to the US; and secondly that the most popular methods of taking it are different. Meth is almost always either injected or smoked, whereas 4-MMC is mainly taken either by snorting it, by swallowing it in capsule form, "bombing it" or mixing it into a drink. Meth can be snorted, and it can potentially be mixed with 4-MMC, but if anyone is doing so, my bet would be only those who consider themselves truly "hardcore" are likely to chance it.

The paper's main claim today though is that teachers are having to hand 4-MMC back to pupils who have it in their possession, as it has no age restriction and isn't illegal. The paper here seems to be using a typical tabloid short cut: what it does definitively report is the comments made by Mike Stewart, head of Westlands School in Torquay:

Mr Stewart said: "Both teachers and police are powerless to do anything about it.

"Items can be confiscated, but because this drug is still legal it would have to be given back at the end of the day and that's disturbing.

"This drug is highly dangerous and must be banned."

Note that Stewart doesn't actually say that he has had to give 4-MMC back to a student after it's been confiscated, because in all likelihood he hasn't. He does though seem to be one of these teachers that love to talk to the media, as this video on the BBC shows. From this the paper has directly taken the line that teachers are having to give it back, which there is absolutely no evidence for whatsoever.

My school days aren't that long behind me, and teachers then were all too confiscate happy, and the time the item was kept was often far longer than just until the end of the day. The idea that a teacher would confiscate a white powder, even if told that it was 4-MMC and still hand it back to a student is ludicrous. The very first thing that would happen is that a higher authority (probably up to head of year, deputy head, even head level) would be brought in for something so potentially serious, and then almost certainly the police as well. After all, you can't take a student's word for it that the white powder they have in their possession isn't cocaine or speed. The Devon and Cornwall police themselves issued a press release today which ought to fully debunk this claim (Update: .doc, thanks again to Carl):

"If the seized drugs are found to be mephedrone no charges will follow under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but it is possible that other offences such as those under Intoxicating Substances Act 1985 could be brought. If, after testing, the seized substance is identified as mephedrone the Force will retain and destroy the product."

No chance whatsoever then that teachers or even police would have to give it back. The Sun could have checked this themselves, but instead thought that scaring people would be a better option.

Having then created a nightmarish picture of teachers having to give potentially deadly drugs back to their students, the paper moves on to lambasting the government, its other favourite popular past-time :

Home Secretary Alan Johnson was blasted as it emerged that a decision on a ban had been delayed SIX MONTHS.

An official review was launched last October, then postponed when the scientist in charge quit in protest at the sacking of chief drugs adviser Prof David Nutt.

The committee has still not reported, meaning any ban is still months away.

Not true - the ACMD is due to give advice to ministers at the end of the month, regardless of the problems caused by the sacking of Prof David Nutt, whom the Sun previously smeared by association, targeting his own children. The government has said it will take "immediate action" upon receiving that advice, although how much they can do considering parliament will have to rise on the 6th for an election on May 6th is difficult to see. The best plan to deal with it in a prohibitive fashion, as pointed out yesterday, was to stick it in a "Class D" classification, age-restricting and taking control of the supply until more research and studies had been carried out. This though simply isn't good enough for those who have already lost loved ones, even if they don't yet know whether it was 4-MMC itself that killed them, newspapers which are determined to use any stick to beat the government and other politicians who are equally set on proving their law and order credentials.

The paper's leader has all of this and more besides:

SCHOOL heads are furious at the Government shambles over killer party drug meow meow.

Teachers seize stashes but have to return them because there is no law against the lethal substance.

Nonsense, as we've established above.

Instead of acting, Labour cobble up plans to microchip puppies - in an attempt to divert attention from the Jon Venables scandal.

Yes, that policy was directly cooked up to distract everyone. Do they really expect anyone to believe such utter rot?

Lord Mandelson admits he's never HEARD of meow meow. Shouldn't a senior minister be better informed?

When it has absolutely nothing to do with his own ministerial duties, no, he doesn't necessarily have to be.

America can ban drugs instantly for a year pending investigation.

Why can't we? Labour mumble about a decision by the summer.

Even if 4-MMC was to be banned immediately, does the paper really think that'll either solve anything or decrease the dangers of taking it? Of course it won't, it's just the same old "sending a message" nonsense which has failed now for over half a century.

Tackling meow meow is urgent.

The Government must wake up or have more deaths on its conscience.

More deaths on their conscience? Is the paper really suggesting that the government bears some responsibility for those who die as a result of taking potentially dangerous substances? This is the equivalent of claiming that the government bears responsibility for everyone who dies as a result of alcohol poisoning because that's legal, or through lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. For a newspaper that repeatedly stresses personal responsibility, this is the complete antitheses of that philosophy. By the same yardstick you could claim that the media could have deaths on their conscience through the hype and hysteria which they're spreading about 4-MMC; you can bet that there'll be more inquisitive and inclined to try it this weekend as a result of all the coverage, regardless of the panic associated with it. If the government has a responsibility, then so does the media. The Sun has resolutely failed that test.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010 

Mephedrone - what a fucking disgrace.

It's fairly obvious to compare the current hype/hysteria over Mephedrone (Q&A PDF here), a new "legal" high to the seminal Brass Eye episode on drugs where Chris Morris invented the fictional drug Cake, and got celebrities and politicians to rail against it, but then this blog is nothing if not obvious. It really does seem almost too good to be possibly be true - sold as "plant food", called in slang, ridiculously, "Meow Meow", "Miaow" or supposedly "Bubbles", and now we have the deaths linked to it in which everyone seems to be completely ignoring the fact that the two men in Scunthorpe who died mixed it with alcohol and then apparently, and we say apparently, as it's impossible to know yet what killed them until the toxicology reports come back, used Methadone of all things to try and make the comedown smoother. Methadone has all the dangers of heroin, and is incredibly easy to overdose on, especially when you have no tolerance to it and are unable to therefore know what a "safe" dose is. Slight update: as Carl points out in the comments, while it's possible they may have overdosed on just the Methadone, it's also possible that the mixture of the three could just have well have caused their deaths.

As a drug that only emerged in 2007 as a "recreational" substance, much about Mephedrone or 2-methylamino-1-p-tolylpropan-1-one to give it its proper systematic name is unknown, including the true dangers involved in taking it and the long-term side effects. What is known is that so far only one death has been definitively linked to the drug, and that also involved the taking of it with another drug, in that case cannabis. An earlier reported death in this country of a 14-year-old girl was found to have been caused by bronchial pneumonia, and not 4-MMC, as we'll call it from here. We don't then have any solid evidence whatsoever, let alone any scientific studies, to show that the drug is inherently dangerous on its own; what we do have is reports from users that suggest that it has unpleasant side-effects, and also isolated reports that some have become addicted to it, although those have to be treated with the usual scepticism.

To put this somewhat in context, the rise of 4-MMC doesn't seem to be just because its legal status is currently in limbo, nor that it can currently be obtained easily and acquired for relatively trivial amounts of money, but because of both the relative scarcity of Ecstasy, and the perceived drop of quality in both MDMA and cocaine. 4-MMC is currently felt to be far more likely to be purer in quality because of its legality, in difference to the aforementioned drugs, although there have been rumours that some batches could have been contaminated. The other drug to rise hugely in popularity in the last few years has been Ketamine: it's no coincidence that while Ket is a controlled drug, its use as an anaesthetic in both humans and animals means that it is relatively easy to obtain, and that its quality is somewhat assured as a result.

It hardly then follows that making 4-MMC illegal, as demanded by all the usual suspects, will either halt its growth in popularity or reduce the risks associated with it. Indeed, as the ever excellent Transform blog points out, the ban on importing it into Guernsey has had two predictable effects: pushing up the price, fuelling acquisitive crime, with organised crime gangs filling in where previously dodgy if legal outfits had been supplying it. Making a substance illegal only increases the possibility of contamination when the ingredients are more difficult to get hold of (the quality of the ingredients is also bound to suffer) - witness the recent deaths of heroin users who found their supply had been contaminated with anthrax. Lastly, as the equally reasoned Prof. David Nutt makes clear, that 4-MMC is a "designer" drug only makes the possibility of a replacement substance coming along relatively quickly after a ban is put in place all the more likely.

Nutt also offers the best "prohibitive" short-term solution, a so called "Class D" classification:

This is a holding category where drugs can be put before they are well understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting, at doses limited as far as possible to safe levels; and it comes with health education messages. Society can limit sales and collect data on use.

Unfortunately this would never be close to acceptable to the "usual suspects" mentioned above. In fact, they'd consider it the government openly sanctioning the use of such dangerous substances, and if someone was to die in circumstances similar to that of the two young men in Scunthorpe where it hasn't yet been proved that their deaths were anything to do with 4-MMC, then they'd declare that the government had blood on its hands. Like the Private Eye taxi driver stereotype where hanging and flogging is the only thing that "they" understand, so in this instance only a ban is acceptable or likely to be understood. That drug prohibition has almost certainly been the most destructive political orthodoxy of the post-war years in terms of lives destroyed and lives lost continues to be completely ignored by the entire mainstream.

Where we then need knowledge, understanding and time to make informed decisions of just what harms drug pose, we instead have the equivalent of the celebrity in Brass Eye declaring that Cake could make you throw-up your own pelvis bone. What a fucking disgrace.

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