Most voters in the referendum heeded the government's noisy warnings that a "yes" vote would turn their country into a haven for drug tourists and traffickers and outrage their European neighbours.
But 26 per cent of the voters - almost half a million people - agreed with a proposed constitutional amendment put up by a loose coalition of left-wing groups, that "the consumption, cultivation or possession of drugs, and their acquisition for personal use, is not punishable".
Last year, Switzerland voted in favour of the distribution of heroin by the state to hardened addicts. But the majority balked yesterday at the prospect of a drugs free-for-all.
No other European nation, not even the broad-minded Netherlands, has yet legalised the possession or sale of any hard drugs.
The government said its current policy of helping hard-core addicts while clamping down on dealers was the best. The pro-legalisation lobby, which gathered the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a referendum, claimed legalisation would reduce trafficking and stamp out the black market.
The aim of the referendum organisers was not necessarily to win the vote yesterday, but to develop the debate and strengthen their hand in their campaign to convince the government to relax the laws on soft drugs such as cannabis.
Switzerland has an estimated 30,000 hard-drug addicts in a population of seven million.
Francois Reusser, the co- organiser of the committee that collected signatures for the referendum, said: "We were unable to mobilise the dope-smokers and ravers."Reuse content