Wikipedia says:

”However, two years prior to this, Nixon had formally declared a "war on drugs" that would be directed toward eradication, interdiction, and incarceration.”

I understand that only Congress can constitutionally declare war, but that hasn’t happened since WWII. We’ve been in many “conflicts” in which the rules of war were applicable, such as the “Iraq War”. Although it’s impossible for the U.S. to be at war with a hunk of land called Iraq, we are at war against the people involved with that land.

Is the United States government officially at war with products manufactured/grown, sold, and consumed by American citizens?

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    Depends completely on your definition of “declared war” and “being officially at war”.
    – chirlu
    Oct 8, 2017 at 11:41
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    Wikipedia is a poor primary source. Is that statement sourced? Does formally mean he just said it in a speech? Or was it a written declaration of war? And, just as a picky detail, only Congress can declare war, not the President.
    – user2565
    Oct 8, 2017 at 13:36
  • @barrycarter Wikipedia gives Payan, Tony (2013). A War that Can’t Be Won. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press as the only source citation for that particular claim. Also, a cursory search of whitehouse.gov doesn't seem to bring up anything useful.
    – user
    Oct 10, 2017 at 11:10
  • Primarily, "war" referred to an armed conflict between two well-defined human groups, among modern state societies, the term refers to a situation of armed conflict between defined countries. One would have to metaphorically stretch the "normal" use of the word to consider "war on drugs" as a war.
    – Davius
    Jul 10, 2022 at 11:44

2 Answers 2


You (or rather, Nixon :) are mixing up two definitions (Thanks, English, for being confusing!)

  • One is, "war" as in official state of war, that is declared by the government of one sovereign country against (usually, especially before 21st century) a government of another sovereign country.

    Those "real" wars are governed by specific rules, and are required to be formally declared in accordance with a warring country's laws and international laws/treaties the country signed.

    From Merriam-webster's definition #1:

    1.: a (1) :a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations (2) :a period of such armed conflict

  • Another one is, "war" as in "an effort to combat some(one|thing)" you are hostile to, which takes the literal meaning of the term "war" as used in the past; and applies it in a non-literal sense to something that strictly speaking isn't a "war" by the first definition. Hence, the "war" on drugs, terrorism, truancy, poverty, cancer, etc...

    So, it's more of a policy, which for emotional/political impact is being called "war". But as it is a formally declared policy, in the case of war on drugs, it is indeed something that was described as 'formally declared a "war on drugs"', despite it not being an actual war in a literal definition of the term.

    From Merriam-webster's definition #2:

    2 :a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism b :a struggle or competition between opposing forces or for a particular end

    In other words, US government is officially in a state of hostility against addictive narcotics distribution and use. Which doesn't sound nearly as pithy nor cool as "war on drugs".

  • I would perhaps mention who has the formal authority to declare war for the US.
    – user9389
    Oct 8, 2017 at 14:49
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    @notstoreboughtdirt - till SCOTUS decides about War Powers Act, that seems to be a toss-up :)
    – user4012
    Oct 8, 2017 at 17:23
  • Thanks for the answer. I’m still a bit confused because the War on Drugs definitely seems to fit the first definition. Countless deaths, pillaging of homes, military weapons, helicopters flying over everyone’s property, spying, etc. In what way would we consider the War on Drugs different from a “real war”?
    – Cannabijoy
    Oct 8, 2017 at 19:38
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    @user4012 I may need a refresher then, I thought that was aimed at limiting non-war fighting, not delegating the authority to declare war. In fact I read it strictly as trying to limit the freedom of presidents, perhaps you can point me to someone saying it grants the president a role in formally declaring war.
    – user9389
    Oct 9, 2017 at 22:11
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    @blip I just wanted to clarify that we have a thriving legal addictive narcotics industry as well ;-)
    – Cannabijoy
    Oct 10, 2017 at 17:46

What is war?

In international law, a war is a legal relationship between states (1). States enter into this relationship when one state declares war on another. Although the specifics vary from law to law, in general war requires that states be using military force to pursue their lawful rights.

Is the War on Drugs a war?

Obviously not. Every part of the definition is untrue:

  • It is not a declared war. In the United States, Congress has the power to declare war through a Declaration of War. There is no such declaration for the "War" on Drugs.
  • War only exists between two states. There cannot be a war on abstract entities ("drugs", "poverty") or against not-state actors (such as drug cartels). They don't have the international standing to enter into the legal relationship of war.

What about all these other things?

Based on the question and comments made by OP, you are unsure about what to do with other things that seem to be wars: the War on Drugs, the war in Iraq, et cet.

Under the normal view of international relations and international law, these are not wars. So what are they? Why are they different?

A much broader category of international behavior is "armed conflict". Any military conflict fits under armed conflict, even those that aren't war. The Vietnam conflict, war in Iraq, and other military actions are all armed conflicts, but not wars. Armed conflicts do not require any special legal actions, can involve non-state actors, and may include other deviations from ordinary warfare.

Policies like the "war on drugs" and "war on poverty" are only metaphorically wars. They obviously aren't literal wars, but the name suggests we are pursuing them with the same vigor that we would give to a war.

(1) - This is an idea straight from any introductory international relations course. However, this Department of Defense document has a decent non-academic discussion: Law of War (especially starting on page 18).

If you do want an academic article, McNair is one of the classics.


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