The binding affinity to the mu receptor of some opioids chemically related to morphine and some of their metabolites was examined in rat brain homogenates with 3H-DAMGO. The chemical group at position 6 of the molecule had little effect on binding (e.g. morphine-6-glucuronide Ki = 0.6 nM; morphine = 1.2 nM). Decreasing the length of the alkyl group at position 3 decreased the Ki values (morphine less than codeine less than ethylmorphine less than pholcodine). Analgesics with high clinical potency containing a methoxyl group at position 3 (e.g. hydrocodone, Ki = 19.8 nM) had relatively weak receptor binding, whilst their O-demethylated metabolites (e.g. hydromorphone, Ki = 0.6 nM) had much stronger binding. Many opioids may exert their pharmacological actions predominantly through metabolites.