Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully open the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he trust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction .

"Which is it today," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"

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

"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven percent solution. Would you care to try it?"

"No, indeed," I answered brusquely . . .

He smiled at my vehemence. "Perhaps you are right, Watson," he said. "I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."

Holmes had a ready explanation for the drug habit that so upset his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson. His mind, he said, "rebels at stagnation." As he told the concerned and blustering Watson. "I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation." Drugs lifted him out of torpor. They gave him a "high."

Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective had thereby given, in 1890, a portrait of the drug user - psychology, rationale and all - as well drawn as anything in these late 1970s. Doyle's character had been created at a time when cocaine, the chemical substance, as opposed to the coca leaf from which it was extracted, was just being popularized in Europe. Sigmund Freud, who only recently has been linked with Holmes in a factional drama about drug abuse, ironically played a leading role in public usage of cocaine.

Freud, then a young and ambitious doctor in Vienna, began using cocaine himself and wrote a famous paper celebrating its virtures. To Freud, cocaine gave "exhilaration and lasting euphoria": it was "more likely to improve health than impair it." He encouraged an admired colleague to use the drug to alleviate nerve pains, and their boasted of how well cocaine was serving his distinguished friend.

But Freud's career was almost wrecked when the friend found cocaine so to his liking that he began injecting it into his bloodstream daily, causing serious psychological deterioration and a state of paranoiac hallucinations much like those of an extreme alcoholic suffering delirium tremens. Freud's friend began fancying that white snakes were crawling over him and that insects were burrowing under his skin. Other doctors attacked Freud for irresponsibility and recklessness. One eminent authority on drug addiction charged Freud with "unleashing the third scourge of humanity," the first two being alcohol and opiates.

Enough of the history lesson, though Freud and Holmes, fact and fiction, do remain instructive about some of the dimensions of the drug question, old or new, then or now.

Drugs, use and abuse, are being discussed and debated more widely in Washington today than any time in years.They form the aftermath of the Dr. Peter Bourne case.

Whether Bourne used cocaine at that widely publicized party thrown by the drug lobby people months ago is, now, beside the point. His statement that many others in the Carter White House regularly use illegal drugs, combined with the knowledge that Washington reporters (including this paper's) also were invited guests at that cocaine-snaffing party, have caused repercussions in public and private places.

President Carter's sharp order to his staff shows only one - the public policy - aspect of the debate. "Whether you agree with the law or whether or not others obey the law is totally irrelevant," the president said. "You will obey it or you will seek employment elsewhere." The other - and larger - side is the more interesting, for it deals with the reality of drug usage not only in Washington, but the country.

What's really at issue are standards. More precisely, how do you define standards - of acceptability, taste, use, even of law. Then, and much more difficult: how do you enforce them? Or can you? Or should you? The questions beg more questions.

Illegal drugs now form a multibillion - yes, billion - dollar business in the United States. Domestic sales of heroine alone are estimated at $10 billion a year, and tens of millions of Americans have experienced the effects of illegal drugs. The latest government figures on use of illegal drugs are stunning in their sociological implications.

It's estimated that about 10 million Americans have tried cocaine. Another 10 million have used some form of hallucinogens. Ten million more have taken some form of opiates. And nearly 7 million people, most of them young, have used the newest drug threat, the highly dangerous PCP, the so-called "angel dust."

The figures for use of marijuana and its stronger cousin, hashish, are astronomical. Nearly 43 million citizens are said to have tried marijuana, almost 20 million hashish.

What's probably most remarkable about all these figures, it you think back just a few years ago to the national fears over a drug-crazed culture sweeping the land, is the latest Gallup Poll. For four decades Gallup pollsters have been asking Americans the same question - "what do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?" Only 1 percent of the people now cite drug abuse as a major national problem.

The drug revolution clearly not only has come of age, it appears to be accepted as a matter of course everywhere in the country. We not only have a drug community. Usage of some kinds of illegal drugs have now obviously become a part of our culture.

Perhaps the most thoroughly ignored law ever written on the national statute books was the Prohibition Amendment barring the manufacture and sale of liquor after World War I. The "noble experiment," as Herbert Hoover called it, introduced an era of lawlessness such as the United States had never known, marked by open warfare and murder between rival bootleg gangs and complete cynicism and disregard for law and order by a large segment of the public.

Prohibition was doomed when the trend setters, the "elites" if you will, the lawyers, judges, editors, writers, public officials and other professionals ignored that law. Something of the same has been happening today with illegal drugs, particularly the use of marijuna and, now, cocaine. There are no longer major regional differences on drug usage, and the national demographic distinctions have virtually disappeared. About the only difference, it seems, is generational.

And there's the implicit message, like it or not, coming out of that swish cocaine party for public officials, journalists and others in this self-important capital city: that younger group, the sub-culture of a culture, will soon be moving into leadership positions in America.