‘What can we do?’ This was the question that dominated the weekend’s news and current affairs in the aftermath of the Westminster ‘terror’ attack. We still do not know if it was organised by so-called Islamic State or, as seems increasingly likely, was the savage work of a ‘lone wolf’.
The discussion I heard on Any Questions centred on rooting out radicalisation, smartening up security, or accepting ‘the new normal’ that the likes of Sadiq Khan and Dominic Grieve (the security services have done well and something was bound to happen at some point) seem resigned to – a world where increasingly frequent human sacrifices are subliminally accepted as a price worth paying to protect our democracy and ‘our way of life’.
Two factors were not considered. One, the role of family dysfunction and two, the role of drugs, in catalysing the sort of violence perpetrated in Westminster last Wednesday.
From the moment he was born to a 17-year-old lone mother, Adrian Ajao was statistically at risk. Newspapers referred to his ‘well to do’ Home Counties upbringing but of far more significance for this baby’s future life path was a birth certificate that listed only his mother. I am not asking you to weep but to accept, statistically, that Adrian didn’t get off to a very good start. The hard statistical fact is that children who live continuously with lone mothers have poorer cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes compared to children who have biological fathers as a stable part of the household and family life.
Any idea that the presence of a stepfather helps can be forgotten. It doesn’t stack up statistically either – children are no less at risk of poor outcomes in step households. Adrian adopted his stepfather’s name only symbolically to abandon it later.
While some children in Africa are named after the unfortunate circumstances they are born to, in the modern West the unfortunate circumstance is not to have a biological father to name you.
Here is where the trajectory from pain to violence begins. As the young Adrian hit his late teens, his chances of his hitting drugs too were high. From the graphic descriptions volunteered by former friends it was to prove disastrous. Cannabis, it seems likely, triggered the psychosis that was a key factor in his increasingly psychotic and violent behaviour.
Before his final horrific killing spree in Westminster last week, Khalid Masood (as he became) had gone from troubled teen to terror of his neighbourhood; once he tried to run a neighbour down and the wife he married in 2004 fled for her life. He would be jailed twice for slashing people with knives.
For anyone in a culture of denial about cannabis, schizophrenia and violence let me refer them to the epidemiological evidence in the public domain. It not only identifies cannabis use as a risk factor for schizophrenia, but in individuals with a predisposition for schizophrenia, it results in an exacerbation of symptoms and worsening of the schizophrenic prognosis (Simona A. Stilo,MD; Robin M. Murray RM. Translational Research 2010: The epidemiology of schizophrenia: replacing dogma with knowledge. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010 Sep;12(3):305–315).
A recently published Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development – a 50-year cohort study – has categorically found that cannabis caused a seven-fold increase in a violent behaviour and that continued use of cannabis over the lifetime of the study was strongest predictor of violent convictions, even when all other factors that contributed to violent behaviour were accounted for.
A study of Norwegian youths similarly found an association between cannabis use and violence and that frequency of cannabis use relates to frequency of incidents of violent behaviour. The preliminary findings of another study have found the changes in brain function that suggest the mechanism for cannabis-induced violence.
Ajao is not the only young British drug user to become prone to sudden bursts of violence, to dream about killing someone or to harbour a blood lust. Our NHS psychiatric wards are full of them on anti-psychotic medication to stop them hearing voices while they yet still abuse cannabis.
An analysis of hospital episode statistics I investigated a few years ago revealed the extent of the cannabis mental health crisis in the UK, despite an overall fall in use. Between 1998 and 2011, mental and behavioural disorders due to cannabis use increased overall by 54 per cent. This included an 108 per cent increase in harmful use episodes, a 51 per cent increase in dependence, a 61.8 per cent increase in psychotic disorders, and a 450 per cent increase in ‘other mental and behavioural disorders.
Drug-related hospital admissions have reached record highs too in recent years. Most, 70 per cent are men and most of these are young men.
The science is there for the behavioural unit in the Home Office to investigate, as Amber Rudd promised would be the case last year when she was asked.
Since Wednesday police have been searching for explanations for Khalid Masood’s violence. They are checking all possible contacts with ISIL cells and the influence of Islamist radicals, quite rightly. Masood, I have no doubt, was ripe for radicalisation in his own unhappy quest for personal ‘justice’.
Like Lee Rigby’s killers before him, I suspect the drugs came first and the conversion followed, giving a purpose to the violent impulses lurking within.
Newspaper columnist Peter Hitchens has been right to ask what violent killers have in common and to ask whether it is dope that may be the real mind-blowing terror threat in our midst and where dysfunctional families abound.
For the fact is that mental illness, triggered by cannabis, increases the risk of aggressive behaviour, crime and violence.
British longitudinal data on cannabis use and schizophrenia shows that the incidence of schizophrenia in South London doubled between 1965 and 1999. The study uniquely allowed for the examination of trends in cannabis use prior to first presentation with schizophrenia. The greatest increase was found in people under 35. Its author Professor Sir Robin Murray has suggested that up to 20 per cent of schizophrenia cases could be cannabis attributable.
Despite all this, the Government in the UK has kept its head in the sand over this public health and safety time bomb. It has never fulfilled its pledge to run a major public health education campaign.
The evidence should tell Amber Rudd’s Home Office ‘behaviour unit’ that it is overdue, as is committed policing to protect young men at risk. This has to be part of any prevention strategy in response to the carnage in Westminster last week.
The link between cannabis and violence, as I argued before, can no longer be ignored.