1. The interaction between the cannabinoid agonists, WIN 55,212-2 or CP 55,940 with the CB(1) receptor-selective antagonists, SR141716A or LY320135 was investigated using the rat electrically-stimulated vas deferens bioassay. 2. Tissues were stimulated by single-field pulses (150 V, 0.5 ms) delivered every 30 mins. In the presence of nifedipine (3 microM), agonists elicited a concentration-dependent inhibition of the contractile response, with pEC(50) values of 7.93 and 6.84 for WIN 55,212-2 and CP 55,940, respectively. 3. SR141716A and LY320135 caused parallel dextral displacements of the agonist concentration-response curves. However, the shift of the agonist curves by either antagonist was accompanied by a concentration-dependent enhancement of basal (agonist-independent) tissue contraction. 4. Addition of the amidase inhibitor, phenylmethylsulphonylfluoride (200 microM), resulted in a significant reduction of the basal twitch response, an effect consistent with the presence of tonic receptor activation mediated by the endogenous cannabinoid, anandamide. 5. In light of these findings, we propose a theoretical model of competitive agonist-antagonist interaction in the presence of endogenous agonist tone that was used to derive an optimized analytical approach for the determination of antagonist potency estimates under conditions of tonic receptor activation. 6. This approach yielded pK(B) estimates for SR141716A and LY320135 that were in good agreement with their activity at cannabinoid CB(1) receptors. 7. It is concluded that the rat vas deferens contains prejunctional cannabinoid CB(1) receptors that are under tonic activation from endogenous substances; under these conditions our analytical approach is preferable to the standard methods for the determination of antagonist potency.