WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP)Medical marijuana advocates are calling Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to give patients with certain serious illnesses faster access to medical marijuana a positive step, but say there’s still room for improvement in the state’s program.

The legislation signed by Cuomo on Wednesday will create an expedited approval process for people facing degenerative diseases and those who further face the risk of death or serious harm without the drug. It also authorizes state health officials to work with regulated producers who can provide marijuana to patients as soon as possible.

Julie Netherland, deputy New York director for the Drug Policy Alliance, applauded the move.

“This is something we’ve been pushing him to do for about 15 months,” she told WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane. “From our perspective as patient advocates, the real proof will be when patients get the medicine they need.”

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.

But Netherland said she would like to see a longer list of eligible illnesses and disorders.

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

Netherland said she wants the program to offer price breaks to lower-income patients and be more widely distributed.

“It’s been limited to five producers and 20 dispensaries for a state of almost 20 million people and 54,000 square miles,” she noted.

The bill posed a conundrum to Cuomo, a Democrat who has favored a cautious and conservative approach to medical cannabis. In a statement announcing his approval of the legislation, he wrote that the state must ensure that early access to the drug doesn’t run afoul of federal law — or jeopardize the state’s wider program by violating federal law.

“I deeply sympathize with New Yorkers suffering from serious illness and I appreciate that medical marijuana may alleviate their chronic pain and debilitating symptoms,” Cuomo wrote. “I am also mindful, however, of the overarching authority, jurisdiction and oversight of the federal government.”

The state’s program will already be one of the most tightly regulated in the country when it begins operations. The marijuana will be required to be in the form of a tincture, oil or other nonsmokable form that can be ingested or vaporized. Qualifying conditions include cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and epilepsy.

On Thursday, Vireo Health is preparing to harvest its first crop of medical marijuana. The company says the event in Perth, in Fulton County, will be the first legal harvest of marijuana in New York in more than a century. Vireo is one of the five companies picked by the state to grow and dispense medical marijuana.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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