Andrew Osborn in Bern Friday August 3, 2001 The Guardian It is barely lunchtime but the air at the Munsterplattform park in the Swiss capital is already thick with the sweet and distinctive smell of marijuana. Around a hundred joints are smouldering in the summer sunshine, dangling from the lips of scores of teenagers lounging on manicured lawns. It may not look like it but this is the frontline of Europe's war of attrition on soft drugs, a war which governments across the continent, including Britain, know they are losing and a war which it is increasingly recognised cannot be fought using heavy-handed policing. In the park, there is no sign of police and nobody is trying to conceal what they are doing - for in Bern, Switzerland's German-speaking capital, smoking dope is almost as popular as smoking cigarettes and the police have long since given up hounding "hash-heads". Cannabis consumption has soared in the past 10 years and weed is now so popular and common that the Swiss authorities, renowned more for their alpine conservatism than their liberal values, have taken a historic decision to decriminalise its use, cultivation and possession. The government has tabled a proposal to that effect and in the autumn parliament will begin debating the legalisation. Officials are confident decriminalisation will happen by 2003 following a referendum on the issue. It is simply a question of facing up to "social reality", said the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss. "Switzerland has realised that the contradiction between law enforcement and the need to assist drug addicts must be overcome." In the 90s Switzerland was infamous for Zurich's "Needle Park", where junkies would openly inject heroin. But today officials admit that cannabis is the drug of choice and they concede that young people are not put off by the fact that smoking a spliff remains a criminal offence. Witness Growland, which claims to be Europe's first hemp shop, a stone's throw from Munsterplattform park. It looks like a new age boutique. Beige shirts, shorts and blouses, all made from hemp, jostle for attention with cosmetics and Indian-style shoulder bags. But an enormous cannabis plant pressed against the glass gives the game away. Loophole At the stroke of 12 a door creaks open and a burly ponytailed man wearing an Hawaiian shirt hauls out a sandwich board proclaiming it open. By five past the hour a score of young people are queuing in the shop's dimly lit cellar to exchange their Swiss francs for 10-gram bags of Swiss outdoor hemp. It may look like potpourri but hemp is the principal ingredient of cannabis, marijuana and hashish, and the dessicated flowers and seeds in the small plastic bags are regarded as perfect joint-making material. Technically the shop could be prosecuted for selling soft drugs. A loophole means, however, that as long as it claims to be selling hemp for non-recreational purposes - for perfuming homes or for medicinal reasons - it cannot be shut down. There are around 25 such hemp shops in Bern and 125 nationwide in a country of just 7m people. Growland's manager, Peter "Monkey" Zysett, said: "The law is out of step with reality. Is it correct to make criminals out of 600,000 people in Switzerland? [the estimated number of dope smokers]. "Parents have been misinformed and told cannabis is dangerous and addictive but those stories have been discredited. Politics moves slowly but the market shows that it [decriminalisation] works. Millions of francs go to the government instead of the mafia and that is opening people's eyes." Mr Zysett is adamant he runs a respectable business and more and more people in Switzerland seem to agree with him. He sells only to people over 18, and only hemp as opposed to magic mushrooms and more dangerous synthetic drugs, and he pays his taxes on time which is why, he surmises, Growland has been raided just once by the police in its eight-year history. "The public is no longer afraid," he enthused. "They realise that legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine are more dangerous than cannabis. But at the moment if you smoke a joint at the age of 16 or 18 and get caught it can ruin your life and that's just stupid. "I've been smoking four or five joints a day for the past 20 years and I'm living proof that there's no problem with it. My mind is not especially rotten." At the Swiss federal office of public health, the country's top health official agrees that decriminalisation is the way to go. "We're on the verge of understanding that our society can live with cannabis under certain conditions," said Thomas Zeltner. He has little time for the idea that cannabis is a "gateway" drug which leads to consumption of harder drugs. "Our data and experience show that is not true. We don't have illicit cannabis being sold on street corners in parallel with cocaine and heroine any more. There has been a complete split in the market." Under the government's proposals shops such as Growland would be officially sanctioned and no longer have to pretend the hemp they sell is for non-recreational purposes. That would be great news for Swiss farmers who grow hemp - it is estimated they could rack up sales of almost Â£700m a year were cannabis formally legalised. Tolerance "We're talking about a window of tolerance where we say that if you produce cannabis and sell it in very special shops, only to adults, not to foreigners and in small quantities we will tolerate it," said Professor Zeltner. The limit would be five grams per visit per customer and advertising would not be allowed. Nor would joint lovers be punished for enjoying a spliff in public. In the stricter French- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland they can be fined up to 150 Swiss francs (Â£60) and cautioned. But Professor Zeltner warns the idea that smoking cannabis is without risk is a myth. "At work or behind the wheel it can generate accidents and in the long term it has similar effects to tobacco, causing lung disorders and cancer." However, a joint now and then is small beer, he admits.