The Swiss cabinet has decided to ask parliamentarians to make the use and preparation of cannabis a non-criminal offence.
The interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, said on Monday she was recommending that parliament change the federal narcotics law to end prosecution of cannabis users. But she said the use of other narcotics would remain illegal.
A detailed proposal could go before parliament by June 2001, Dreifuss said. However, even if the law is approved, it could still be subject to a nationwide referendum.
The right-wing People's Party, which has opposed all attempts to soften the country's drug legislation, reacted angrily to the move.
"The cabinet must have been smoking cannabis itself to have made such a crazy decision," said spokeswoman Irene Schellenberg.
Dreifuss said the proposed change in the law would be accompanied by a strengthening of measures aimed at the prevention of drug misuse and the protection of young people.
"Cannabis, like wine or tobacco, is not a harmless substance," the minister said.
In January, a study by the Federal Commission for Youth Issues argued that the current law penalises primarily young people, and those who consume - rather than deal in - narcotics.
The government plans to set up a working group to look at issues linked to the decision on cannabis, including the legal consumption age, how to protect youngsters and how to prevent "drug tourism" in Switzerland.
Swiss voters in 1998 rejected a proposal to legalise all drug consumption. However, the country has one of the most liberal approaches in Europe toward treating heroin addicts.
Free drugs and needles are provided to addicts who do not respond to other forms of treatment designed to wean them of their deadly habit. A "four pillar" approach to drugs targets prevention, therapy, damage limitation and the arrest of users and people involved in the drugs trade.
swissinfo with agencies