The P-glycoprotein multidrug transporter is a plasma membrane efflux pump for hydrophobic natural products, drugs, and peptides, driven by ATP hydrolysis. Determination of the details of the catalytic cycle of P-glycoprotein is critical if we are to understand the mechanism of drug transport and design ways to inhibit it. It has been proposed that the vanadate-trapped transition state of P-glycoprotein (Pgp x ADP x V(i) x M(2+), where M(2+) is a divalent metal ion) has a very low affinity for drugs compared to resting state protein, thus leading to binding of substrate on the cytoplasmic side of the membrane and release of substrate to the extracellular medium (or the extracellular membrane leaflet). We have used several different fluorescence spectroscopic approaches to show that isolated purified P-glycoprotein, when trapped in a stable transition state with vanadate and either Co(2+)or Mg(2+), binds drugs with high affinity. For vinblastine, colchicine, rhodamine 123, and doxorubicin, the affinity of the vanadate-trapped transition state for drugs was only very slightly (less than 2-fold) lower than the binding affinity of resting state Pgp, whereas for the modulators cyclosporin A and verapamil and the substrate Hoechst 33342, the binding affinity was very similar for the two states. The drug binding affinity of the ADP-bound form of the transporter was also comparable to that of the unoccupied transporter. These results suggest that release of drug from the transporter during the catalytic cycle precedes formation of the transition state.