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Paternal incarceration and trajectories of marijuana and other illegal drug use from adolescence into young adulthood: evidence from longitudinal panels of males and females in the United States


Michael E. Roettger, National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403, USA. E-mail:


Aims  One-eighth of young adults in the United States report that their biological father has ever been incarcerated (FEI). This study is the first to examine associations between FEI and trajectories of substance use during the transition from adolescence into young adulthood for the US population.

Design  Using multi-level modeling techniques, trajectories of marijuana and other illegal drug use are examined, with FEI as the primary independent variable.

Setting  Data are from the first three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of US adolescents beginning in 1995.

Participants  Panels of 7157 males and 7997 females followed from adolescence (7th–12th grades) into early adulthood (ages 18–27 years).

Measurements  Dependent variables included an ordinal measure of marijuana frequency of use in last thirty days, and a dichotomous measure for whether respondent had any use in the last thirty days of illegal drugs such crystal meth, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, PCP, LSD, speed, and ecstasy.

Findings  Among males and females, respectively, FEI is associated with an increased frequency of marijuana use, and increased odds of any other illegal drug use. Interactions between FEI and age further reveal that FEI is associated with an accentuated trajectory (i.e. a steeper slope) of marijuana use, and an elevated risk (i.e. higher mean level) of other illegal drug use.

Conclusions  Analysis provides some of the first evidence that paternal incarceration is significantly associated with drug use among U.S. males and females, even after controlling for a number of family background, parental, and individual characteristics.