Although hard drugs are still a rarity, last year's ceasefires have produced a surge in the availability of so-called recreational drugs such as Ecstasy and cannabis. Special Branch surveillance expertise - a surplus of which now exists - has been switched from terrorism to targeting drug dealers.
This has already yielded some successes, including a number of arrests and the seizure of more Ecstasy tablets this year than were seized in the whole of 1994. But supply is at an all-time high, and the worry is that loyalist paramilitary involvement could lead to a drugs explosion.
The biggest fear is that hard drugs, which yield a much higher level of profit to pushers, may eventually make their appearance. But in the meantime violence has been flaring in the drugs underworld.
Ten days ago a major Belfast drugs figure, Mickey "Moneybags" Mooney, was shot dead in a still unexplained killing in a city centre bar. The fact that the shooting was carried out in a clinically professional manner led to allegations that the IRA was responsible. After the killing associates stood in the street and shouted: "What about the ceasefire now?" IRA involvement has however been denied by Sinn Fin, although security sources say the killing had the hallmarks of a republican operation.
Until the early 1990s both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups frowned on the drugs trade. A number of suspected pushers were shot dead while dozens of others were kneecapped or ordered out of the country. As late as 1987 the Government was able to state: "There is no evidence of organised involvement in drugs trafficking by paramilitary groups."
By 1991, however, a number of individuals on the loyalist side had become involved in the trade while an entire republican group, the Irish People's Liberation Organisation, had degenerated from its original Marxism into large-scale drug-pushing.
In 1992 the IRA launched a purge against the IPLO because of its drugs activities, killing one member and injuring ten others in one night. Faced with an IRA ultimatum to disperse or be wiped out, the IPLO hastily announced its disbandment. Not long before its ceasefire the IRA killed another alleged pusher, and dismissed RUC claims that it benefits at one remove from drug-peddling.
On the loyalist side, however, drugs have become an integral part of Protestant paramilitarism. One of the principal loyalist negotiators who has met government officials for talks is acknowledged to be one of Belfast's chief pushers. It is known that Northern Ireland Office minister Michael Ancram, in his talks with loyalists, has complained of drugs involvement.
Not all loyalist paramilitaries favour drug-pushing, however, and there is internal debate on how deeply they should be involved. But many believe there is too much money at stake for the loyalists to pull out.
One loyalist source said: "It's easy dough and the foot soldiers like it, but the middle management and the top leaders benefit too. It's worth thousands of pounds a week. I can't see them just giving that up."
The worst-case scenario is that Belfast might follow the experience of Dublin, where a flood of heroin in the 1980s left the city with 7,000 addicts and all the crime which flows from that.Reuse content