ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York will give patients with certain serious illnesses faster access to medical marijuana as the state works out the details of its full medical cannabis program.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Wednesday that will speed up access to the drug for people facing degenerative diseases and the threat of serious health risks. Under the measure the state will work with regulated producers who can provide marijuana to patients as soon as possible.

New York’s medical marijuana program is expected to be operational in January — a full 18 months after lawmakers approved it.

People with AIDS, terminal cancers and the parents of children with severe epilepsy have long sought early access, arguing that critically ill individuals shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb lauded Cuomo for signing the legislation, saying the wait is finally over for thousands of suffering patients.

“An emergency medical marijuana program will provide immediate relief to patients coping with agonizing pain each day. This measure will allow access to medical care that will ease suffering and symptoms for severely ill people, who no longer must wait for the state to build a final program. I applaud Governor Cuomo for signing this important legislation, Kolb said in a statement.

“This has been a personal and professional priority. I am proud that a collaborative approach between Assembly conferences, the Senate and Governor Cuomo has resulted in a program that will dramatically improve the lives of patients in need.”

New York’s law is stricter than those in other states. It does not allow the plant to be smoked or eaten, but instead dispensed in forms such as drops, capsules or vapor.

In July, the state selected five companies to operate the program. Each company will grow the pot in one location and then sell it at four other locations.

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