Drug Use in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

The introduction of the textbook Drugs and Justice features the first paragraph of the Sherlock Holmes novella The Sign of Four, which depicts the great detective injecting cocaine in great detail. This paragraph, when quoted alone, seems to glorify cocaine use, when in fact, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle argues against drug abuse. From cocaine and opium abuse to alcoholism, and from chloroform to the Devil's Foot, the Holmes canon takes the same stance: abusing drugs is wrong and hurts society, but responsible drug use benefits the public.


Cocaine Abuse

A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887, introducing the world to Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a 27 year old doctor in Southsea, England. This novel introduces readers to Holmes' potential drug use. While in a bar, Dr. John Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan and looking for lodging, is told about Sherlock Holmes by a mutual acquaintance. Among other eccentric qualities, Holmes is described as follows.

"'I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness.'" A Study in Scarlet, 9.

An alkaloid is a naturally occurring organic compound having alkaline or basic properties that are known for their physiological effects, some of which can be toxic. These compounds include cocaine, strychnine, morphine, caffeine, nicotine, opium, and many others. Apart from alcohol, this is a comprehensive list of nearly every drug in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The mention of an alkaloid is also significant because the murderer of the novel uses a stolen alkaloid to kill his victims. For some reason, the substance wasn't specified even though an alkaloid can be one of many different compounds.

This passage also brings up medical experimentation. It seems that Holmes wouldn't tell his subject their food was drugged so he could observe someone without the placebo effect. It's doubtful that he would give Watson enough of a vegetable alkaloid to hurt him, but enough to observe physiological effects. It is alright to drug someone so long as it doesn't hurt them? Is it alright for the scientist to experiment on himself?

"Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion." A Study in Scarlet, 13.

The infamous paragraph of Holmes' cocaine injection doesn't come for another three years. This observation of Watson's comes before he learns that Holmes uses cocaine, so in this instance, he is probably under the influence of some drug. Watson gives his readers a definition of what a drug user is by defining why Holmes can't be one. Drug users don't have anything in control, and they are slobs in all aspects of life. Not so with Holmes. Therefore, he must not be a drug user. He is just very good at looking like he is high.

"Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.

"'Which is it to-day,' I asked, 'morphine or cocaine?'

"He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.

"'It is cocaine,' he said, 'a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?'" The Sign of Four, 99.

Three things need to be pointed out about this passage. First off, Watson does not approve of Holmes' cocaine use. He has spent another, longer paragraph bemoaning his lack of courage to stand up and express his displeasure at seeing his friend in a drug-addled state. He has held his tongue for some time, but can keep quiet any more. This is the beginning of a thread throughout the canon. Watson disapproves of Holmes' cocaine use. Holmes needs it for those periods between cases. Since Watson is the narrator, his opinions are the stronger ones, or the ones that can be interpreted the easiest. He has never approved of Holmes' cocaine use, and he doesn't approve of anyone else using it recreationally either.

The second thing that must be noticed is the Beaune. This is a particularly strong, red wine. Watson has been drinking, which has given him the courage to express his annoyance and displeasure. It's interesting that he needed one drug to give him the courage to protest against another one. It should also be noted that cocaine is legal at this time, so the argument that his alcohol consumption was legal while Holmes' cocaine injection was not is irrelevant.

The third thing is that Holmes uses both morphine and cocaine. The cocaine is most often mentioned in the canon as Watson's least favorite drug for Holmes to use, but Holmes uses whatever is on hand. Morphine and cocaine are both alkaloids, which means they may act similarly. At this time, cocaine was a miracle drug used to treat depression and morphine addiction. Holmes is not using either drug for their intended purpose.

It's easy to get caught up in his cocaine use and denounce him as a drug addict. Earlier adaptations of the canon largely ignored Holmes' cocaine use. Basil Rathbone's Holmes films showed no cocaine use, except for one instance at the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles when he called, "Oh, Watson! The needle!" These films were made in the 1940s, and the attitude towards drug use wasn't as accepting or tolerant. Since then, the attitude towards Holmes' drug use has changed. In the 2002 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes takes a break from the case to inject himself with cocaine. In both cases, the reference is unnecessary to the story, and actually breaks from the canon. However, they both needed to let viewers know that Holmes uses cocaine.

"…while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature." A Scandal in Bohemia, 187.

Holmes may have an undiagnosed case of manic-depression, or something similar to bipolar disorder. He gets excited and energetic at times, forgets to eat, and runs himself into exhaustion. At other times, he falls into a depression, hardly moves, and turns to cocaine and morphine to get him through it. These bouts of mania accompanied by depression are similar to the mood disorder Bipolar II as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These periods largely depend on whether or not Holmes has a case. Because of this, Holmes' mania and depression may not come from a mental illness, but simply because he needs something to engage his mind or else he gets bored. Holmes has never been diagnosed with a mental disorder, but if one tried to give him one, it would probably be Bipolar II, in which case, the cocaine was probably necessary. Holmes never had a doctor prescribe it for him. He just bought it himself, which makes Watson uneasy.

"For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead but sleeping, and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes's ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes." The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, 174.

For those still worried about Holmes' cocaine habit, they should know he's gotten over it. Conan Doyle deals specifically with addiction, characterizing it as a fiend that does not sleep. This is probably as accurate a representation of addiction that can be found at the time. This has taken years for Holmes to get over, and even now, he may not be completely over it. Addiction isn't just a one-time cure all. There is still the possibility that a user can slip back into their old habits, and Watson knew that. Later in the story, Watson sees Holmes with a syringe in his hand and is instantly worried that he has gone back to his cocaine. However, Holmes has needed to use it to solve a case, not for injecting cocaine. This case should put an end to the thought that Conan Doyle glorified Holmes' cocaine use. He has done away with it completely.

" 'Several stitches have been necessary. Morphine has been injected and quiet is essential, but an interview of a few minutes would not be absolutely forbidden.'" The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, 508.

This is the only time Holmes is explicitly shown using morphine. He has just been attacked and nearly killed, and the morphine was used to save his life. This case takes place after he has gotten over his cocaine addiction. He doesn't suffer any addiction to the morphine and it is taken strictly for medical purposes. Holmes also isn't tempted to abuse it at this point because he is in the middle of a case. Rather than relying on morphine to distract him from his pain, he turns to his case and starts formulating a plan.

"'Holmes!' I whispered. 'What on earth are you doing in this den?'" The Man with the Twisted Lip, 275.

The case in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," is not about opium addiction, but the story opens with Watson having to retrieve a patient from an opium den. The man has been addicted for years, and when he can't have opium, he soaks tobacco in laudanum to produce the same effect. The man's life has fallen apart and his wife is barely holding her family together. Watson has come to get him out of the opium den because he has been missing for several days. While he is retrieving his patient, Watson stumbles upon Holmes in the den.

Watson's reaction to his friend (not Holmes) using opium is an indicator of how Watson feels about Holmes' cocaine use. Watson is already in the process of losing one friend to a dangerous and addictive drug. He doesn't want to lose another one to cocaine. He sees a parallel between one friend's opium use and the other's cocaine abuse, and he is afraid that Holmes will go down the same path. So he takes the same action in both cases.

It should also be noted that in The Sign of Four, while Holmes was high on cocaine, he correctly deduced that the previous owner of Watson's watch was his brother who had a history of alcoholism. This touched a particularly sore part in Watson's history and he was hurt that Holmes had dug around in it behind his back. Watson was ashamed of his older brother's alcoholism. Understandably, he probably wouldn't want to go through the same thing again, except this time with cocaine. Drug abuse has only brought Watson's friends and family harm.

Holmes isn't using opium at all. He is on a case and is fishing for information in the opium den. However, he does mention he is still using cocaine. He has an incredible dislike for opium dens, calling them the vilest houses in London. People who come to opium dens rot, and when they are dead, they are dumped in the Thames at night. Holmes makes sure that Watson knows on no uncertain terms that opium dens and the use of opium is something he hates and considers evil. Watson has no need to be convinced. He has seen first-hand how opium ruins men. Holmes is actually telling readers exactly how horrible opium is. It is in no way, shape, or form glorified by either Holmes or Watson.

Opium is mentioned twice more in the canon. In these instances, the unsuspecting users have been drugged, and they do not enjoy it. Not once is opium depicted in a positive light. It isn't used medicinally and when used recreationally, it has dramatic, detrimental effects.


Tobacco and Alcohol

"My first impression as I opened the door was that a fire had broken out, for the room was so filled with smoke that the light of the lamp upon the table was blurred by it. As I entered, however, my fears were set at rest, for it was the acrid fumes of strong coarse tobacco which took me by the throat and set me coughing. Through the haze I had a vague vision of Holmes in his dressing-gown coiled up in an armchair with his black clay pipe between his lips. Several rolls of paper lay around him.

"'Caught cold, Watson?' said he.
"'No, it's this poisonous atmosphere.'
"'I suppose it is pretty think, now that you mention it.'" The Hound of the Baskervilles, 592.

Does anyone wonder why Watson later describes Holmes as a self-poisoner through his use of tobacco? Watson himself has been described as one with an endless supply of pipe tobacco, but he can't compare to Holmes. The great detective bought a pound of pipe tobacco, closed the doors to this room, and smoked all night. By the next day, he has made a considerable dent in his pile of shag tobacco.

The case presented to Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a puzzler. In order to figure it out, he meditates on the problem while smoking a pipe. He does this several times in the canon. The best image of Holmes smoking is when he takes all the pillows from a room, piles them in front of the fire, sits on top of them and smokes a pipe while mulling over a troublesome problem. Holmes and his pipe have become the epitome of meditation in a crime novel. It isn't just a convention anymore; it's an icon. He has a habit of smoking a pipe before breakfast, during breakfast, and after breakfast, each of which are mentioned by Watson. There are probably other scheduled pipe times, but they haven't been noted.

"'Oh, didn't you know?' he cried, laughing. 'Yes, I have been guilty of several monographs. They are all upon technical subjects. Here, for example, is one 'Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.' In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash.'" A Study in Scarlet, 101.

These monographs and the careful study of tobacco are one of the reasons Holmes smoking is perfectly acceptable. He can tell the difference between pipe tobacco and cigar ash, and his cases often hinge on what he is able to tell from them. It also proves that he has an obsession with tobacco and smoking. He depends on it so he can function as a detective.

Holmes uses cigars and cigarettes just as often as his pipe. In "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez," Holmes meets a man who smokes as much as he does. He orders 1,000 Alexandrian cigarettes every two weeks, has a perpetual cigarette in his fingers, and has nicotine stained fingers. Holmes notices that he consumes a large number of cigarettes, but also a large helping of food. He knows that cigarettes kill the appetite, and this observation led him to believe that he was hiding someone and sharing his food.

"I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.

"'My dear Watson,' said the well-remembered voice, 'I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.'" The Adventure of the Empty House, 8.

This was the best example of brandy use that could be found. Sherlock Holmes has just returned from the dead, and Watson is understandably shocked. Shocks like this are common in the canon. Nearly every time brandy is mentioned in the canon, it's because someone is about to pass out or they have already. In one instance, the brandy is needed because a man was stung by a nasty jellyfish. He downs an entire bottle after demanding brandy, morphine, opium, or anything that can numb the pain. When there is no proper medicine nearby, they reach for the next best thing: brandy.

People in Holmes' cases can often be characterized by what kind of alcohol they drink. Nobility and upper-class people drink wine. Whenever a wine is specifically mentioned, it's a different wine than ever mentioned in the canon before. Either this means Conan Doyle tried to make sure each wine was different, or there is such a wide variety that it is difficult to name the same wine twice. Sailors drink rum, even when there is whisky and brandy at hand. They also drink a lot more than any other villains and tend to be violent.

Several villains are described as violent because of drink. A few are dangerous because they feel like being dangerous. For the most part, though, villains are violent because they have turned to drink. A few end up killing people because they are drunk. Others abuse their wives, family, friends, and innocent bystanders because they have been drinking. Some are just hated because of how they act whether they're drunk or not, and when they die, few people feel sorry for them. Conan Doyle may be using alcohol to immediately cast these characters in a negative light, or using these villains to put alcohol in the negative light. Either way, neither the villains nor the abuse of alcohol come out unscathed.

"'A commissionaire remains all night in a little lodge at the foot of the stairs and is in the habit of making coffee at his spirit-lamp for any of the officials who may be working over-time.'" The Naval Treaty, 535.

A spirit-lamp has nothing to do with ghosts. It's a lamp that burns on alcohol, or spirits. Holmes also owns one. This may not necessarily qualify as drug use, but it's a different use for alcohol.


Prescription Drugs

At this time, there were no prescription drugs. The general public could buy anything without a doctor's approval. This is probably how Holmes got his hands on his morphine and cocaine. However, several times throughout the canon, doctors will prescribe medicines, and Holmes does his fair share of prescribing things in Watson's absence. I chose to take these instances as prescription drugs.

"Holmes declares that he overheard me caution him against the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor-oil, while I recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative." The Sign of Four, 119.

In defense of Dr. Watson, their client was an annoying hypochondriac that wouldn't have listened to his advice anyway. Telling him to finish off a bottle of strychnine, which is lethal in large doses, may not have done the world any harm. In small doses, strychnine is used to treat stomach ailments. Castor oil is one of those popular drugs that can be used for anything and everything. It acts as a laxative, can be used on sunburns and skin ailments, can induce labor, and can get rid of acne. Neither of these should be used as a sedative. This serves as a reminder that doctors can make mistakes, but also that patients need to ask questions about their prescriptions. Unlike the man Dr. Watson is talking to, patients need to actively participate in their healthcare. They can't just accept their prescriptions blindly, and they can't just ignore the advice they're given so they can take whatever drugs they want.

"'I had obtained good results in such cases by the inhalation of nitrite of amyl, and the present seemed an admirable opportunity of testing its virtues.'" The Resident Patient, 508.

The doctor using this drug is actually Holmes' client. He studies nervous disorders, and this particular patient has just slipped into an attack where he has become paralyzed. Conan Doyle's background as a doctor come in handy here because he knows what he would prescribe. Nitrite of amyl dilates blood vessels and relaxes involuntary muscles. It is used to treat heart diseases and cyanide poisoning. It can also be used for patients that feel depressed after coming off other drugs. For this reason, it can be used as a recreational drug. In this instance, however, it is supposed to be used to save a patient's life. The man was faking his affliction, but even if he had taken the amyl nitrite, he probably would have been fine.

"With a united effort we tore off the coffin-lid. As we did so there came from the inside a stupefying and overpowering smell of chloroform. A body lay within, its head all wreathed in cotton-wool, which had been soaked in the narcotic." The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, 459.

This is the first instance of chloroform. It makes its debut very late in the canon. Chloroform was discovered in 1861 and became an alternative to ether for anesthesia. It became especially popular when Queen Victoria used it to give birth to two of her children. Chloroform is popular in literature when someone needs to be knocked out quickly. All a kidnapper needs to do is soak a rag or sponge in chloroform, hold it over their victim's face, and they'll be knocked out. Holmes made use of this himself in, "His Last Bow." However, the dose required to knock someone out that quickly would probably kill the victim. This application is difficult to control. This is what was intended for Lady Frances Carfax, but in other cases, it was only supposed to sedate them. Even though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a doctor, he probably didn't know how to use chloroform properly and relied on popular fiction to determine how it would be used.

"'I am sure that, with your symptoms, my friend Dr. Watson here would prescribe a sedative.'" The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, 22.

Watson is one of the few doctors in the canon, but he very rarely prescribes anything. This is probably because he is protecting his patients' privacy. Holmes, on the other hand, is not a doctor, and yet he has a tendency to prescribe things for other people for Dr. Watson. He probably knows Watson's habits and has picked up some of his medical know-how over time. However, he should not be acting as a doctor in Watson's place.

"With Vaseline upon one's forehead, belladonna in one's eyes, rouge over the cheekbones, and crusts of beeswax round one's lips, a very satisfying effect can be produced." The Adventure of the Dying Detective, 445.

Belladonna, or nightshade, is a well known poison. It is also used in treating diseases of the eye. In this case, Holmes has used it so he could look like he was dying. Belladonna will dilate the eyes, giving the effect of a delirious man on his deathbed. Holmes' use of belladonna is certainly not fun or enjoyable, but he is still abusing it for cosmetic purposes.


Religious Use

"They were not long in coming. I had hardly settled in my chair before I was conscious of a think, musky odour, subtle and nauseous. At the very first whiff of it my brain and my imagination were beyond all control. A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul. A freezing horror took possession of me. I felt that my hair was rising, that my tongue like leather. The turmoil within my brain was such that something must surely snap. I tried to scream and was vaguely aware of some hoarse croak which was my own voice, but distant and detached from myself. At the same moment, in some effort of escape, I broke through that cloud of despair and had a glimpse of Holmes's face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror—the very look which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength. I dashed from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes, and together we lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in. Slowly it rose from our souls like the mists from a landscape until peace and reason had returned, and we were sitting upon the grass, wiping our clammy foreheads, and looking with apprehension at each other to mark the last traces of that terrific experience which we had undergone." The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, 473.

Holmes has just discovered a strange white powder in a lamp belonging to a victim who was found with his face contorted in horror. In order to understand what happened, he has repeated the experiment with the same lamp and just a little bit of the powder. At this point, there is no reason to speculate as to how the victim died. This powder is called The Devil's Foot, named after the root that is shaped like a pig's hoof and a human foot combined. It was discovered in Africa. According to the facts supplied by the story, it is used by certain tribes as an ordeal-poison by medicine-men. In England, it has been used to murder two people and sent two others to a sanatorium.

While Devil's Foot is a fictional plant, it acts like other religious use drugs. It is so powerful that even a small amount is too intense for recreational use, like datura. In Africa, it was used for religious purposes and was handled responsibly. The Devil's Foot had significance to their religion. When it was brought to England, one of the first things it did was kill one woman and drive her brothers insane. No one in England knew how to use it responsibly – not even Sherlock Holmes. When used for its intended purpose, the Devil's Foot can be spiritually beneficial. However, when it is abused, the user risks overdose and insanity.

"'It has not yet found its way either into the pharmacopoeia or into the literature of toxicology.'" The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, 477.

And perhaps that is for the best. Like datura, the Devil's Foot may not ever be accepted medicinally or recreationally. There are good uses for both drugs, but they are few and far between and the harms overwhelm the benefits.


New Drugs

"Lowenstein! The name brought back to me the memory of some snippet from a newspaper which spoke of an obscure scientist who was striving in some unknown way for the secret of rejuvenescence and the elixir of life. Lowenstein of Prague! Lowenstein with the wondrous strength-giving serum, tabooed by the profession because he refused to reveal its source." The Adventure of the Creeping Man, 615.

Ever since the beginning of print, one of the most important parts of the newspaper was informing readers of disease outbreaks, reporting on medical science breakthroughs, and advertising new drugs. These new miracle cures would often be nothing but quackery, and the cure could be more dangerous than the disease. As newspapers became more popular, they also had to report quacks and dangerous cures that should be avoided. Lowenstein is another one of these quacks. His testing is questionable and his drugs are unproven. Still, he advertises that he has a miracle cure.

The Creeping Man has been taking a drug that has been illegal in England for some time because he is looking for the fountain of youth. He finds hope in a scientist from Belgium, Lowenstein, who has a drug that will give the user great strength. He has derived it from primates and is still working out the bugs when he gives it to the Creeping Man. The effect is disturbing, but not altogether unexpected. The man adopts the behaviors of a monkey. He crawls around on his hands and feet, climbs trees and walls covered in ivy, and harasses a dog to the point of fury and frenzy.

Lowenstein's drug hasn't been properly tested, and when released to the public, has terrible side effects. This episode serves as a reminder that not everything advertised in the newspapers, then and now, can be completely trusted. Even new, properly tested drugs can have dangerous side effects that haven't been discovered yet.

"'When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny.'" The Adventure of the Creeping Man, 615.

Overall, the Sherlock Holmes canon takes a negative stance towards drug abuse. Cocaine use may have been glorified in one paragraph, but the rest of the canon has taken a decidedly disapproving approach to drug abuse. Alcohol is used by heroes and villains alike, but only villains abuse alcohol and become perpetual drunks. At the same time, certain drugs are put in a positive light when used responsibly and for the purposes they were designed for.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: Volumes I and II; Conan Doyle, Arthur; published by Barnes and Noble

Drugs and Justice: Seeking a Consistent, Coherent, and Comprehensive View

American Psychiatric Association : Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (Washington, DC : American Psychiatric Association, 1994) : 317-391.