Marijuana and many of its constituent cannabinoids influence the central nervous system (CNS), probably through the cannabinoid receptor, which has recently been cloned in rat and human. While numerous reports have also described effects of cannabinoids on the immune system, the observation of both mRNA and cannabinoid receptor has hitherto been exclusively confined to the brain, a reported detection in the testis being the sole example of its presence at the periphery. Here we report the expression of the cannabinoid receptor on human immune tissues using a highly sensitive polymerase-chain-reaction-based method for mRNA quantification. We show that, although present in a much lower abundance than in brain, cannabinoid receptor transcripts are found in human spleen, tonsils and peripheral blood leukocytes. The distribution pattern displays important variations of the mRNA level for the cannabinoid receptor among the main human blood cell subpopulations. The rank order of mRNA levels in these cells is B cells > natural killer cells > or = polymorphonuclear neutrophils > or = T8 cells > monocytes > T4 cells. Cannabinoid-receptor mRNA, which is also found in monocytic, as well as T and B leukemia cell lines but not in Jurkat cells, presents a great diversity of expression on these cells as well, B-cell lines expressing a much higher level than T-cell lines. The cannabinoid receptor PCR products from leukocytes and brain are identical both in size and sequence suggesting a strong similarity between central and peripheral cannabinoid receptors. The expression of this receptor was demonstrated on membranes of the myelomonocytic U937 cells using the synthetic cannabinoid [3H]CP-55940 as ligand. The Kd determined from Scatchard analysis was 0.1 nM and the Bmax for membranes was 525 fmol/mg protein. The demonstration of cannabinoid-receptor expression at both mRNA and protein levels on human leukocytes provides a molecular basis for cannabinoid action on these cells.