Why Does Sherlock Holmes Use Cocaine?

Question by Rupsa Banerjee
from Kolkata, India

Sherlock Holmes definitely knows the bad effects of cocaine. Yet, he uses it. What is the cause of using cocaine?

My Answer

Well, from what I can perceive, you’re saying:

Sherlock Holmes is an intelligent dude. In fact he’s more than intelligent: he’s a genius. He’s not naive, he’s worldly wise.

Why does a smart and rational being like him use a substance that definitely harms his body?

I can think of two reasons for this.

1 Sherlock Holmes May Not Be Aware That Cocaine Is SO Addictive and Harmful

This may sound ridiculous but, I’m not sure Sherlock Holmes knows about the ill-effects of Cocaine in the stories – to the extent that we do, today.

It is true that Dr. Watson does caution Holmes against the use of cocaine.

Yet, in the late 19th century:

Cocaine was perfectly legal!

And not just that: it was, in general, thought of as a revitalizing, energizing product that was actually good for the health. Take a look at these ads from 1885 and 1896.

According to these Victorian ads, cocaine is shown to be good for the teeth and hair!

You could buy it at any chemist’s shop without any prescription.

Heck! Even Coca Cola had cocaine till the year 1903. Really. The name ‘Coca’ in Coca Cola comes from the coca leaf – from which cocaine is extracted.

The largest drug manufacturer of that era was Parke Davis. According to Howard Wayne Morgan’s book, ‘Drugs in America: A Social History,’ Parke Davis’ drug catalogue in 1885 mentioned these lines about cocaine:

“…it will indeed be the most important therapeutic discovery of the age, the benefit of which to humanity will be simply incalculable.”

You get the point: This drug was viewed by many people of the Victorian age not as something negative – but like you would view a multi-vitamin capsule with loads of positive effects!

Dr. Watson is, in fact, way ahead of his time in already pointing out in the 1880s that Cocaine is bad for Sherlock Holmes’ health. He calls Holmes ‘poisoner by cocaine’ in The Five Orange Pips.

But: he’s an exception to the general belief at that time.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that despite being uber-intelligent, Sherlock Holmes might not view cocaine in ‘as bad’ a light as we of the 21st century – view it.

He might think of it as – say – how we might view an intense and addictive brand of coffee today!

2 Sherlock Holmes Has an ‘I Crave Cartloads of Intellectual Stimulation’ Problem

I don’t know if Sherlock Holmes has a disease. I’m not a doctor. But, he does have a problem.

He has an obsessive need to be stimulated and challenged.

And he doesn’t exactly control that need. It’s built into his brain just like his mind-blowing intelligence is.

It’s a bit like a perfectly rational, intelligent and perceptive adult – requiring the ‘amount’ of stimulation that a 7 year old kid requires.

Of course Sherlock Holmes doesn’t require a 7 year old’s version of stimulation – he requires explosive intellectual stimulation. But I’d say the ‘amount’ of stimulation required would be the same for Holmes and the 7 year old boy.

Imagine an adult’s ordinary day – say – my day. I wake up. I talk to my wife. I teach English. I read. I perform some household tasks. I work on this site. And I’m happy.

I don’t feel the urge to have something risky, heart-stoppingly stimulating and brain-crushingly challenging happen to me everyday.

Sherlock Holmes has that urge. I don’t know if it is a disease, but it definitely is a problem he can’t control.

This quote from ‘The Sign of Four’ clearly explains Sherlock Holmes’ problem:

Watson: “May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?”

Holmes: “None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for?

Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world?”

 When was the last time you felt bored because you had nothing stimulating to do?

And to top all that: Sherlock Holmes is a genius. Which means he finds any daily challenges that life may place in his way, excessively simple to solve. Like you or me being stuck in a Grade 3 classroom.

This makes it a double problem.

Sherlock Holmes craves challenges and problems on a daily basis. And: he is a genius with an apparent IQ of 190 – for whom no ordinary problem is good enough.

It isn’t exactly child’s play for even life to give Sherlock Holmes the kind of unbelievably complicated problems he wants!

So basically, Sherlock Holmes’ body and mind just are such that like a young kid, he is always yelling ‘bored!’ in his mind. And after he’s yelled forever and ever, he succumbs to the apparently unhealthy but legal and socially acceptable temptation of …


Which gives his brain the same high that solving an excruciating case gives him. That stops him from yelling ‘bored’ for some time. Before he wants a case again.

I’m not justifying Sherlock Holmes’ cocaine use and saying, ‘Poor guy, he can’t help it.’

Using that drug is bad. And Sherlock Holmes doesn’t do anything amazing by succumbing to it.

But the times in which he lives and his crazy ‘problem’ can help us understand why he allows himself to inject cocaine.