Cannabinoid receptors have recently been characterized and localized using a high-affinity radiolabeled cannabinoid analog in section binding assays. In rat brain, the highest receptor densities are in the globus pallidus and substantia nigra pars reticulata. Receptors are also dense in the caudate-putamen. In order to determine the neuronal localization of these receptors, selective lesions of key striatal afferent and efferent systems were made. Striatal neurons and efferent projections were selectively destroyed by unilateral infusion of ibotenic acid into the caudate-putamen. The nigrostriatal pathway was selectively destroyed in another set of animals by infusion of 6-hydroxydopamine into the medial forebrain bundle. After 2- or 4-week survivals, slide-mounted brain sections were incubated with ligands selective for cannabinoid ([3H]CP 55,940), dopamine D1 3H]SCH-23390) and D2 ([3H]raclopride) receptors, and dopamine uptake sites ([3H]GBR-12935). Slides were exposed to 3H-sensitive film. The resulting autoradiography showed ibotenate-induced losses of cannabinoid, D1 and D2 receptors in the caudate-putamen and topographic losses of cannabinoid and D1 receptors in the globus pallidus, entopeduncular nucleus, and substantia nigra pars reticulata at both survivals. Four weeks after medial forebrain bundle lesions (which resulted in amphetamine-induced rotations), there was loss of dopamine uptake sites in the striatum and substantia nigra pars compacta but no change in cannabinoid receptor binding. The data show that cannabinoid receptors in the basal ganglia are neuronally located on striatal projection neurons, including their axons and terminals. Cannabinoid receptors may be co-localized with D1 receptors on striatonigral neurons. Cannabinoid receptors are not localized on dopaminergic nigrostriatal cell bodies or terminals.