As I wandered down Nostrand Avenue looking for the right building, he stood in the middle of the busy sidewalk, raised his left hand high, and waved in my direction.

“I’m right here!” he said.

He greeted me with a firm handshake and a wide smile. Charlie, who asked that we refer to him only by his first name, is a 29-year-old father of two. He stands about 6 feet tall and small talk comes easy to him. He walked me into a pre-war building in the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens area of Brooklyn and by the time we arrived to the second floor, he already knew what I thought about the weather, the area I live in, and how long it took me to find a parking spot. He was also surprisingly candid about how he felt.

“I’m having a hard time today,” he said, as he led me up the stairs. “You see my foot? I can’t wait to get inside and roll up.” I looked down at his foot and noticed it was slightly tilted inward, though I’m not sure I would have noticed otherwise.

Looking at Charlie and speaking with him, you would never know anything was wrong. But he, like about 400,000 other people in the United States, has multiple sclerosis (MS). There is currently no cure for the disease. According to the Mayo Clinic , MS is a progressive disease that affects the central nervous system, causing vision impairment, limb weakness, pain, and slurred speech, depending on the patient. For the most part, there aren’t any age requirements for MS; it’s most commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 60 years old.

“I’ll never forget the first day I felt anything. I was on the basketball court with my brother,” Charlie said. “I was seeing double. I saw two hoops. I told my brother ‘I see two hoops. I see three hoops sometimes.’ He was like, ‘Dude, just aim for the one in the middle!’” He laughed.

Charlie was diagnosed with MS when he was 21. He said his symptoms started when he was 15, then progressively got worse, forcing him to see a doctor.

He is the only person in his family with the disease. Initially devastated by the diagnosis, Charlie said he tried a doctor-prescribed medicine (he couldn’t remember the name) only to stop after about two weeks. They weren’t working the way he expected them to.

It wasn’t long afterward that he found a video of TV host Montel Williams discussing how medical marijuana helped alleviate some of his MS-related pain. Williams announced his diagnosis in 1999 , which was 19 years after he initially experienced symptoms. Since then, Williams has become an outspoken advocate for using cannabis as a means to manage the daily symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis. After seeing Williams’ story, Charlie decided to give it a shot.

“My neurologist actually recommended it,” Charlie said. “I told him I tried [marijuana] and wasn’t sure I was into it. ... He told me I should try edibles or tea or something, but that’s too strong. It’ll put me to sleep. Smoking it is better. At the time, it wasn’t legal.”

medical marijuana
Tim Blakeley, manager of Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary, fills a marijuana prescription in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

New York State passed a bill in 2014 legalizing medical marijuana for use among patients with “severe debilitating or life threatening conditions.” MS falls neatly into that category. However, despite the law going into effect in January of this year, patients continue to face a myriad of obstacles for obtaining legal access to medicinal weed. Earlier this year, Vice described the only Manhattan dispensary as being “like a fortress.” And Charlie, who’s been using non-prescription street marijuana for almost eight years now, says that his attempts to find that same dispensary on 14th street were futile.

“It’s super complicated to get [medical marijuana],” Charlie said. “It’s one office in Manhattan that’s hidden. I went to go look for it the other day. I couldn’t find it. It’s like a ghost place.”

And so, he continues to use non-prescription marijuana without supplementing it with other, prescribed medications. He said he doesn’t like the way the other medications make him feel.

Marijuana, on the other hand, works for Charlie, even if the research on its benefits as they relate to multiple sclerosis is limited at best. In 2005, for example, a study on MS patients who used cannabis-based medicines reported better sleep and a significant reduction in pain. In 2012, another study found that cannabinoids, the active chemical components of marijuana plants, helped slow the progression of the disease in mice. This conclusion led researchers to believe the same could occur in humans. Similarly, a 2013 study found that cannabinoids regulated inflammation in the brains and spinal cords of mice with multiple sclerosis. A different study in that same year had the opposite result , finding that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana that produces the characteristic high, failed to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis.

“Research is still early, but there have been several laboratory, pre-clinical, and clinical trials that have backed up the use of medical marijuana for MS,” Alex Milligan, Los Angeles-based co-founder and CEO of NuggMD , an online tool for consumers to obtain medical marijuana prescriptions, told Medical Daily . “However, the breadth of knowledge on this subject is largely limited to anecdotal evidence [which for those suffering from MS, is often more than enough], but there are promising signs.”

Charlie has found a support system in friends and family members who understand his pain. At times, they help procure marijuana for him. It’s expensive, he said, adding up to $20 a day at times. With a prescription, he’d be able to get what he needs, possibly even without the cost. He said his disability prevents him from working full time, so $100 to $120 a week becomes a pretty hefty price to pay to feel healthy.

The personal expense isn’t the only problem with non-prescription use, however. Boston-based Dr. Jordan Tishler of Inhale MD Health & Wellness , told Medical Daily that the drawbacks of non-prescription cannabis use are mostly legal, but also believes that patients using cannabis to treat their MS symptoms should do so under the care of a licensed doctor.

medical marijuana
Signage hangs outside +Doctor, a medical marijuana evaluation clinic, which does not distribute marijuana from its facility, is seen in Los Angeles, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“Without the recommendation [from a doctor] you are subject to possible arrest, depending on the state in which you live. The law in New York, while fairly restrictive, does provide protection from prosecution,” Tishler told Medical Daily. “Also, if the source of your cannabis medicine is black market, there is no assurance that you are getting safe, tested medicine. In general, I think that conventional medications should be used, perhaps in conjunction with cannabis, to get the best overall benefit. Similarly, I think that any patient who has such a severe illness should get, or be able to get, real, knowledgeable cannabis care.”

Until this cannabis care becomes easier to obtain, Charlie said he intends to continue treating his symptoms with marijuana from street pharmacists.

Aside from his MS and the hardships it brings, Charlie is just like any other person. He’s single, but dating. And, in the short time that I spoke with him, his face beamed with pride as he found random ways to weave his two young daughters into the conversation. He’s almost infectiously optimistic, with a bright sense of humor, and he’s determined not to let his diagnosis control his life.

“I’m tired of smoking, but the pain’s not gonna stop. So I’m not gonna stop,” Charlie said. “I don’t wish this on anybody. But you can’t give up. I won’t ever give up.”