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The Economics of Ex-Im In Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

You have read the press releases. You may have heard about such ideas at a recent cannabis conference in and around the EU of late. Or you may have encountered new distributors coming into the game with a German presence and a decidedly interesting ex-im plan that sounds a bit, well, off the map.

No matter how geographically creative some of these plans are, the problem is that many of these ideas literally do not make economic sense. Either for the companies themselves (if not their investors), and certainly not for patients. Not to mention, truth be told, the looming price sensitivity issues in the European market that North Americans, for starters, seem to still just be waking up to.

Some Recent Examples….

Yes, exports from Denmark have been much in the news lately (including into both Germany and Poland). Truth be told, however, this makes about as much sense, economically, as importing ice to eskimos. Why? Denmark, for all its looser regulations and less-uptight approach to the cannabis discussion generally, is one of the most expensive labour markets in Europe. Fully automated production plants are one thing, but you can build those in other places too. Especially warmer climates, with lots of sunshine. German production, as it comes online, will also make this idea increasingly ludicrous.

Who on earth got on this bandwagon? It seems that the enthusiasm in the room began when Denmark began to import to Germany (where the disparities in wages in production are not so noticeable). However, lately, several Canadian companies with a Danish footprint have been eying Poland of late.

And on that particular topic – there are many who are doing the math and trying to figure out, as the alternatives get going, if even Canada makes much sense, or will in a few years.

Low Wage Markets With Sunshine Are Hotspots For European Cannabis Production

Like it or not, the European market is extraordinarily price sensitive – namely because it is not “just” consumers called patients picking up the tab but health insurance companies demanding proof of medical efficacy.

That starts, a bit unfortunately, with understanding wage economics across Europe. The warmer the climate, in other words and the further east on the map, wages drop precipitously. That is “good” for an industry looking to produce ever cheaper (but more compliant) product.

It is also good, at least politically, for countries whose elected leaders are being forced to admit that cannabis works, but are less than copacetic about encouraging local production. See Germany for starters, but places like Austria, Poland and most recently France (which has just embarked on a first of its kind medical cannabis trial).

Here, no matter the temporary buzz about Denmark, are the places that cannabis production makes sense:european union states

Portugal: The country is a newcomer in the cannabis discussion this fall, although in truth, the seeds of this reality were sown several seasons ago when Tilray began to build its production plant in the country in 2017. They are far from the only company who has seen the light, and these days, farmers are getting hip to the possibilities. Especially if they are already exporting crops throughout Europe.

Spain: The industry that can afford GMP certification is getting going, but everyone else is stuck in a limbo between pharmaceutical producers and the strange gray market (see the patient clubs in Barcelona). That said, political groups are beginning to discuss cultivation as an economic development tool, if not sustainable food and medication strategies.

Greece: The weather is warm, and the investment climate welcoming. Of all the countries in the EU, Greece has embraced the economic possibilities that cannabis could bring. How that will play out in the next years to come is an intriguing story.

Italy: The southern part of the country in particular is ripe for cannabis investment and it’s full of sunshine. However, as many have noted, organized crime in this part of the world is a bit fierce and starts with the letter M.

Malta: The island is a comer, but does importing cannabis from here really make economic sense? There are trade routes and economic treaties tying the island both to the apparently Brexiting British and Europe. Why not, right? Just remember that along with labour, transportation costs are in the room here too.

And Just Outside The EU…

The country now (sort of) known as North Macedonia and struggling to get into the EU if France would just get out of the way is also going to be a heavyweight in this discussion for years to come. Wages, of course, will increase as part of EU membership, but in general, this country just north of Greece is going to play a highly strategic role in exports throughout Europe.

Poland Gets Cracking (Sort Of)

By Marguerite Arnold
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One of the surest ways to understand that you are entering not just another country, but what is called an “emerging market” is when you travel from Germany to Poland by train.

There is only one “intercity” option from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff – a far cry from the modern, internet-connected, fast ICE trains that go West. This line is run by the Poles. By the time you reach Warsaw five hours later, however, it is clear at least some parts of this country are booming. The skyscraper construction in the center of town rivals London and Berlin.

Like every emerging market, there are vast disparities in wealth and income, if not opportunity here. And into this discussion, now is coming the entire cannabis discussion. Visiting, as an American, in particular, one is reminded of a city that could be East Berlin 15 years ago.

As a cannabis journalist, it feels, from this perspective, like every American state in the 1990’s. Reform is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But not quite realized yet, except for a few elites. Beyond such realities which are common in the world of cannabis, how very, well, Iron Curtain.

The difference of course, these days, is that the conversation next door in Germany, as well as other places, is finally forcing the Polish government to face reality. But it is clear, from interviews with activists and patients in particular, as well as the nascent newcomers from abroad testing the cannabis waters, that this fight is not going to be easy on the ground.

Then again, when and where has it ever been?

The Patients….

As always, real reform and market opening is driven by the sheer numbers of sick people who brave arrest to gain access to the plant. Some do it for themselves. Many do it for their children (of all ages). An elderly, boomer couple who talked to Cannabis Industry Journal about their ordeal also see it as a form of justified struggle. And Poles are no strangers to that, far from the cannabis kind.

That ethic is much in the room among the nascent industry that is also struggling to find respect. The Polish side of the discussion is looking at hemp. And growing THC illicitly, just like elsewhere.

But the budding movement here is highly organized, including on the business end, with hundreds of thousands of members. How this translates into a legal industry (besides media and hemp products) is of course, still up for grabs.

That is very much in the minds of those who brave the struggle daily. The patient collective in Warsaw is also highly organized – providing free and non-profit product to those most in need. It is an impressive operation. And further one that is increasingly distrustful of foreigners seeking “market share.” If not the already floating “suits.” Just knowing how to speak Polish, as the activists are, at least realizing, is not a guarantee that they will not be dealing with cannasharks only interested in their contacts and mailing lists. Patients over profits is a phrase you hear a lot here. This has nothing to do with not wanting to support a legit, safe industry. But when you are poor, you find ways to improvise. Including getting your medication.

The Foreign Companies…

Aurora and Canopy Growth are already in the room and there are other Canadians lining up to follow. However, these two are the only ones so far who have been able to get their products registered locally and even then, availability is still in the offing.

european union statesThese are also highly expensive products. And do not begin to compete with producers now eying the Polish market from North Macedonia and the rest of Eastern Europe.

The foreign companies, in other words, are already broadly falling into two camps. North American curiosity seekers (at this point), and companies, mostly from the East and South, who are looking to Poland to be the “next Germany.” Especially because their product is so price and geographically convenient.

A Battle For Poland’s Emerging Market

It is clear that at least the Canadian companies are already lining up against more home grown and patient interests. Just as what happened in Germany and the rest of Europe so far. And not even on purpose, but more on matters of price.

Like other pre-commoditized markets, the Polish industry is still trying to be (relatively) equal and fair, as much as there is a huge amount of positioning already just below the surface. Everyone is tired of struggling. Dreams of cannabis riches are enticing just about everywhere.

Of course, add to that, patients are dying here, and that always sets the tone – especially when only the richest and lucky few can afford to access the drug through legitimate channels. Face pain, unpleasantness or death or buy in the black market? For the Polish industry on the forefront of the debate, in other words, the stakes are high, the government is moving glacially, and those on the ground are organizing to meet the winds of change.

Foment for another kind of Green Perostroika? Perhaps.

There will, almost certainly as a result of these forces, be a call for a Polish bid – and further one that allows for local producers to enter the medical market.

But the bottom line is that this strange, and exciting and certainly new market is going to be as volatile, and wild west as any in Europe for the immediate future. Expect interesting things, if not more of the same.

The Fall of Farmako?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Chances are if you follow the European cannabis scene, particularly out of Germany, that you might have heard of a firm called Farmako. They have certainly, in the three quarters or so they have been in business, been given a lot of “good press.” They certainly worked hard to get into the headlines.

The problem is that no matter how scintillating initial claims were to many members of the media if not industry beyond, the bloom was quickly off the rose in the same circles. Since at least March, these grumbles have earned the company increasingly bad press. Industry insider complaints and background knowledge also began appearing in places like Manager (a top German business magazine), Vice and Business Insider Germany. Behind the headlines and insider quotes, however, quite a few people are admitting, even if off the record, that while initially impressive enough to be believed – at least on the surface – most of Farmako’s claims have panned out so far to be just hot air. And there have been a lot of them, not only from the sourcing perspective but also from the research, scientific development and certainly tech fronts.

The rebutting, editing and confronting of which has also set off a round of really bad press.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Further, apparently even the embarrassing fallout (and of course resulting reorganization) is not what it seems to be. Which of course has also been described so far publicly by the Frankfurt-based company itself, and Berlin-based tech funder, Heartbeat Labs. The former of which are so far unsuccessfully walking back just about every claim made over recent months. The latter of which has a great deal of embarrassing egg on its face on the compliance front.

When reached for comment by Cannabis Industry Journal, Heartbeat Labs responded via email that they had none.

While Farmako is struggling to regain the confidence of the industry if not regulators and appears to be trying to hang on to its distribution license, the story itself is also illustrative of many of the failings of the so-far establishing cannabis industry. In Germany and elsewhere. Coming as it does within the summer of scandal involving both larger companies and start-ups, bigger questions about industry practices, in general are in the room. If not the backgrounds of those boasting about “industry experience” (or even worse when caught, “oops I have none, really”). Highly stereotypical fixes so far have also not helped.

Everyone makes mistakes in a world where everything is new and one where the regulations are constantly changing. The problem with Farmako in particular, is that there were so many.All the bragging in the English and German language press had consequences.

The Story So Far

Farmako made headlines earlier this year when they issued a press release claiming that they had inked a deal to “import 50 tonnes of cannabis from Poland.” They further claimed, when contacted by CIJ that they stood by the story. At this point, their claims were clearly about a future delivery. However, Farmako CEO Niklas Kouparanis then embellished further on Bloomburg. Kouparanis claimed that they were already distributing product from Macedonia.

The reality of course was nothing of the sort. While Farmako was distributing product it had sourced from other places, no Macedonian product had ever crossed the border. But as May rolled into June, it was clear that there was something else afoot. All the bragging in the English and German language press had consequences. The German press had a field day with the storied and very colourful past of both Farmako founders. The regulatory agency, BfArM conducted an investigation. Kouparanis was out by the beginning of July.

Producers Do Not Trust Them

Cannabis industry insiders (both producers and distributors) who contacted CIJ about this story, but wished to remain off the record, confirmed that many producers who had initially heard of the firm in both Poland and Macedonia, in particular, were distancing themselves from Farmako. But the stories were not limited to Eastern Europe. In the UK, where Farmako had used a chunk of its investment from Heartbeat Labs to also open a London office, cannabis professionals expressed scepticism of almost all of the company’s claims including not just sourcing, but on the tech and R&D side. One senior executive in the Canadian industry said on deep background that he was tired of the lies from Diemer in particular, and never wanted to speak to anyone associated with the company ever again.

And clearly all was not well within Farmako itself, no matter the constant cheery optimism, if not “shucks we didn’t know” attitude of all involved when actually confronted or questioned about their behaviour – and or statements – particularly to the press.

What Has Been The Upshot To Date?

Kouparanis may be history but Diemer remains with the company. Although Heartbeat Labs claims this has nothing to do with the subsequent company re-org and Kouparanis’ departure, insiders in the industry claim otherwise. Further, several also suggested that any attempt on the part of Farmako to enter into contracts until July was fundamentally compromised by the actions of Farmako execs themselves.

Diemer certainly, has been remarkably candid at least in review about one aspect that most in the cannabis industry who have encountered him so far agree with. He has come clean in interviews that he knows very little about the legitimate cannabis industry. Perhaps that is also why he has continued to claim that there is no crisis at the company.

Both statements of course also raise questions about why he is still there.

The company is still in business although apparently finding it very difficult to source product.The appointment of a new CEO, Geschäftsfüherinen– a female and first head of any kind of cannaspecialist distribution company auf Deutsch, Katrin Eckmans is also interesting. Eckmans makes her apparent cannabis industry debute with a professional background that includes ex-im at Frankfurt airport, after the quick departure of Kouparanis. Particularly given that he co-founded the company with Diemer after leaving a year long stint at Cannamedical (the second indie cannabis specialty distributor in Germany, established in 2017 by David Henn). And she is apparently being hired for both complementary experience and her gender (which while refreshing in a still male dominated industry is widely also regarded as at this point fairly easy-to-spot window dressing conveniently proffered to regain confidence of investors if not customers in a gender-friendly twist when a company or organization hits an existential crisis).

Calling in even a highly competent if inexperienced in the cannabis niche woman, in other words, even in this industry, does not necessarily “fix” things. This goes from company culture to critical relationships within the industry (upon which distributors like Farmako depend on at this point).

For now, at least, Farmako, and its financier in Berlin appear to have deflected criticism of their efforts although those who have had interactions with the staff are placing bets on when the doors in both Germany and the UK will shutter.

Farmako’s detractors may yet also lose such wagers. The company is still in business although apparently finding it very difficult to source product. Not, in this case because they cannot find it – but rather because producers are flat out refusing to work with them.

In the meantime, particularly other German canna specialty distributors are taking a lesson from this story. If Farmako survives, in other words, it will do so by overtaking the competition that has sprung up all around them – which is not only unburdened by the baggage, but is also determined not to make the same mistakes.

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Frontline Pharmacy: The Battle For The Footprint of Medical Cannabis Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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This summer, as new distributors continue to get into the cannabis game (in Germany, the UK and beyond), and at least two countries (Greece and Macedonia get GMP-certified), the battle is now on not just for cultivation and distribution licenses, but the end point of sale, pharmacies.

Pharmacies were always going to play a large role in cannabis distribution in Europe, starting with the fact that there will not be a separate “dispensary” system (as there is in the United States and Canada). Further, in some jurisdictions, notably Germany, the idea of the “apotheker” is one that is not going to go away anytime soon. No matter how intriguing the concept of online pharmacies actually are to everyone else (see the British).

Further, the shift to what is widely being referred to as “tele” or “digital” health is only going to increase in prevalence as discussions continue. Cost and access (to all medications, not just cannabis) are an issue near and dear to the average European. So is the right and consumer safety issues of being able to consult with a local pharmacist, who might even know you personally, and can advise on the health effects of the medicines they pass over the counter.

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Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Jens Spahn, the current Health Minister of Germany, is touting a move to personal management of health records and digital prescriptions by next year. However, nobody knows exactly what that means, much less the functionality of the same.

Further, the German pharmacy situation in particular is one that has implications across Europe no matter how aggressively “digital health” solutions are implemented here. By law, no more than three (in some rare cases four) brick and mortar pharmacies can be owned by the same owner. There is no such thing as “Boots” (a British chain) or “Walgreens” (an American one).

Doc Morris, the Dutch online pharmacy, has always been an option for Germans just across the border. The problem of course is that insurers so far have been refusing to pay for critical parts of this idea. The company is currently experimenting with working with insurers- but do not expect the average chronically ill person in any country to suddenly get expedited access. So far, the only innovations in this market have hit as the privileges of the privately insured.

Second class status (and significantly lagging behind those with private healthcare) is also very much in the room as a political issue- and cannabis access has only sped this up.

If the scenario in the EU two years ago could be described as the race for import licenses and cultivation rights, this year, the focus of the big guys is very much trying to mainstream their product and get it on as many “shelves” as possible.

In Europe, however, since nobody can ship straight to the patient (as in Canada), the next most obvious step is securing access to pharmacies.

The Cannabis Industry Cometh

Even before Aphria announced its purchase of CC Pharma (one of Germany’s largest distributors)  in a deal that finally closed in January of this year, the larger companies have been looking for a more efficient supply chain situation. Owning a distributor is certainly one way to go about this.

Israeli Together bought into a large German distributor last summer.

As of May 2019, Aleafia Health and its wholly owned subsidiary, Emblem, entered a JV with Acnos Pharma GmbH – with access and reach to 20,000 German pharmacies. And Wayland announced its merger with ICC, with pharmacies across the world.

As early as October 2017, Tilray and Cronos together tried to storm the German market (by inking a deal to reach the 20k plus pharmacies in the German system). Two years later, and this still has not made a huge difference in access.

Regardless of these larger industry players, however, or perhaps so far because of their statements and the resulting continued lack of access for most patients, it is also fact, particularly in both Germany and the UK, that merely having relationships with pharmacies is not enough. This year, there is also a fairly major price drop in the cards for the cannabis industry. And while the larger players may blanket the market with relationships, actually providing access to GMP-certified medical cannabis at a decent if not competitive price, is going to continue to have an impact on every market, particularly in those situations where compliant online access can be connected to indie distribution.

It is also an environment where the advantage still does not necessarily go to the “big guys” – a strategy that Wayland, for one, has been playing strategically for the better part of the last two years better than any other Canadian in the market. Especially when supply chain issues, beyond price, are still in the room.

Right now, pharmacies are well aware of their growing influence in this space in Europe. How much of an influence they will continue to have however, also rests on how effectively they preserve their right to have such an influence on the end consumer (as in Germany) or not (see the many discussions about this issue in the UK right now).

Further, as many of these entities are also realizing, and this is true far beyond the cannabis discussion, pharmacies are increasingly caught in the middle between consumer, doctor and insurer (this is certainly the case both for cannabis and also for all expensive orphan drugs).

How the pharmacies, in other words, begin to solve other issues, beyond just having a contractual relationship with a cannabis distributor/producer, is very much a part of the conversation right now. Access to cannabis via distribution deals with a Canadian or even Israeli partner certainly helps sales but it does not guarantee them.

One thing is for certain. The impact of new privacy legislation is having an effect, so even in an environment where a distributor/producer buys a pharmacy, what they can then do with customer information they also might have been interested in purchasing, is not only highly limiting, but in the future it may be the best approach to handling liability, and from multiple directions that includes everything to access to affordable, certified product to cyber security issues.

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How Germany Gets Its Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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The German cannabis cultivation bid may be mostly done and dusted (although the last four lots are now up for legal challenge) but the drama is only intensifying on the ground in Germany. Namely, where is the cannabis being consumed on the ground now actually coming from?

For the past several years (in fact since 2016 when a Frankfurt-based start-up called Medcann imported the first Canadian medical cannabis into the German market in partnership with Canopy Growth), the conventional wisdom has been that Holland and Canada were the only two countries allowed to import medical cannabis into the country.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoAs is usually the case in the cannabis industry, when it comes to such things, there were also multiple and highly creative explanations about this strange state of affairs that sounded oddly exotic enough to be plausible. This is after all, the international cannabis business.

These explanations also usually referenced conventional industry “lore” including such tall tales as these two countries were not signatories to an international drug treaty (not true), to being European (nope) or even a member of the EU (also completely false).

Yet there was always something strange with such urban legends – perpetuated by insiders across the German industry. Starting with a deliberate vagueness about details. Especially as in the summer of 2017 when Tilray announced grow facilities in Portugal, and by the end of it, Canopy was moving into Spain, and later by early 2018 Denmark and more. Italybegan to appear on the radar of multiple big Canadian companies. Clearly all these big companies seemed to know something that those outside did not. See Greece. Not to mention the teeth-gnashing of the Israelis– repeatedly shut out of the German market by not being allowed to export by their own government until Christmas Day, 2018.

The mystery deepened in March in fact, as a furore rocked the German-based cannabis industry over the last weeks. Farmako, a new, Frankfurt-based distributor, not only announced that it was importing 50 tonnes of cannabis into the country– and from Poland (where production of such bulk has not even been seeded) – but then gave additional details on a Bloomberg appearance that appeared to indicate that in fact the medical cannabis they were already selling (sourced from other places) had come from Macedonia. 

Certification, and most certainly paperwork are the name of the gameIn fact, no such transfer of cannabis had occurred from the Macedonian side (yet), although the firm in question at the other end of the deal was subjected to considerable harassment in the German canna-specialty press in the meantime.

The news, that occurred right at a time when Tilray is clearly training pharmacists for the German market, the first bid is concluding, Greece issues even more cultivation licenses, Canadian companies are clearing still stepping up their production game, and South Africa is also getting into the formal licensing act, with all sorts of interesting things afoot in Uruguay, also set off what appears to be an official investigation of the firms involved at the governmental level.

Insiders are tight lipped and nobody is willing to talk on record. However, the distribution firm, Farmako, has subsequently reported that in the month of March, they became the top selling cannabis specialty distributor in Germany. And since they are not out of business, it is also clear that while their PR may have been a little premature if not easily misunderstood, the broader message is very obvious.

What is also very clear at this point, in other words, is that the German door for cannabis and the international industry appears to be opening to product sourced from many places. Further by extension, the German government is in the process of recognizing foreign GMP certification processes from multiple countries all over the world as being equal to its own – at least on the cannabis front.

In fact, this has been going on relatively quietly for the past six months or so.

What Are The Standards, Certifications, and Qualifications?

A press release from January of this year, issued from an Australian firm called MCA, announced they had accepted the first letter of intent to ship to a German firm (in 2020). The company is currently accepting pre-orders as it finishes construction and achieves EU GMP certification. The same (female founded) firm was also present at the ICBC in Berlin this year in March, reporting that German demand from a universe of local distributors was already greater than they could fill. The news that their first sale went to German firm Lexamed, the controversial German wheelchair distributor who helped bring down the first German bid, was also largely unremarked upon at the time by most of the industry press and in fact, ever since.

GMPIn truth, it appears that the countries and companies that have the right to import to Germany must first have their own national GMP certification recognized as being equal to German standards – or a so-called Mutual Recognition Agreement (or MRA) must exist between the importer and exporter nations. It still means that to be really EU-GMP compliant, inspectors have to walk your cultivation floors. But first your country has to have the MRA. And that is a matter for lawyers and regulators to decide.

In the Australian case, the GMP equivalence for cannabis production apparently became reality within the last six months although no one is giving exact dates. In the case of Macedonia, this is pending, with German inspectors now apparently scheduled to begin inspecting domestic cultivation facilities within the next month to six weeks.

The biggest news, of course, which makes even more sense on the heels of Canopy’s latest “record breaking” U.S. acquisition, is that the EU and the U.S. will enter into an MRA in July that was finally agreed to in February of this year. This will also mean that cannabis “medicines” potentially even beyond CBD, produced via U.S. GMP processes, will be allowed to enter Europe if not Germany in the near future – and from the U.S. for the first time. Ahead of federal legalization in the U.S.

It also means that Israeli and American firms will be allowed to enter the European and thus German market for the first time (on the ground with product) by at latest, the third quarter of this year.

Caused By The Bid….and Likely Shorter Term Outcomes

What the events of the last several weeks make clear is that the bid is not only insufficient for demand, but the authorities are officially, if quietly recognizing the same. There are already rumours about the next cultivation tenders in Germany, and there is a high likelihood that other countries (see Poland in particular) may also follow suit shortly.

Further, the difficulties in making sure that not only countries but the companies based in the same remain compliant with EU and further German sanctified EU- GMP processes (for one) is likely to be an issue that continues to bubble. Why? It is a problem already in the broader pharmaceutical market here.

The Plusses and Minuses of The News

The first thing that is also obvious is that even Wayland cannot source the entire German market with the product it has begun to grow here no matter who ends up with the last four cultivation licenses this time around. Further, that the other winning bid firms (Aphria and Aurora as known at this point) without cultivation on the ground, are sourcing from somewhere that is also probably at this point, not even Canada. No matter how much expansion is going on in Canada, in other words, what is now entering the German market may bear a Canadian brand but could just have easily been sourced from almost anywhere in the world.

That also means that enterprising firms (see Australian MCA) can skip the Canadian introduction to the German market and sell directly to local producers before they even have crops on the ground, as well as the burgeoning German cannabis distributors across the country.

For such firms now wanting to enter the market, however, it is not all clear sailing. The events of the last few weeks clearly show that the government is watching, including reading English language industry press, and willing to pursue any firms it deems are breaking the rules on both sides of national borders.

Certification, and most certainly paperwork are the name of the game, as well as greater accuracy in company intentions (even if in the near term).


Disclaimer: Nysk, the Macedonian firm referred to in this story, is a sponsor of the MedPayRx pilot to market program