Using RNA (Northern) blot hybridization and reverse transcription-PCR, we demonstrate that the brain-type cannabinoid receptor (CB1-R) mRNA, but not the spleen-type cannabinoid receptor (CB2-R) mRNA, is expressed in the mouse uterus and that this organ has the capacity to synthesize the putative endogenous cannabinoid ligand, anandamide (arachidonylethanolamide). The psychoactive cannabinoid component of marijuana--delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)--or anandamide, but not the inactive and nonpsychoactive cannabidiol (CBD), inhibited forskolin-stimulated cyclic AMP formation in the mouse uterus, which was prevented by pertussis toxin pretreatment. These results suggest that uterine CB1-R is coupled to inhibitory guanine nucleotide-binding protein and is biologically active. Autoradiographic studies identified ligand binding sites ([3H]anandamide) in the uterine epithelium and stromal cells, suggesting that these cells are perhaps the targets for cannabinoid action. Scatchard analysis of the binding of [3H]WIN 55212-2, another cannabinoid receptor ligand, showed a single class of high-affinity binding sites in the endometrium with an apparent Kd of 2.4 nM and Bmax of 5.4 x 10(9) molecules per mg of protein. The gene encoding lactoferrin is an estrogen-responsive gene in the mouse uterus that was rapidly and transiently up-regulated by THC, but not by CBD, in ovariectomized mice in the absence of ovarian steroids. This effect, unlike that of 17 beta-estradiol (E2), was not influenced by a pure antiestrogen, ICI 182780, suggesting that the THC-induced uterine lactoferrin gene expression does not involve estrogen receptors. We propose that the uterus is a new target for cannabinoid ligand-receptor signaling.