A specific receptor for cannabinoids has been characterized at the pharmacological, molecular, and neuroanatomical level. However, less is known of the functional localization in the brain for the behavioral and physiological actions of these drugs. We have examined the effects of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its active metabolite 11-OH-THC on regional cerebral blood flow in the rat in order to determine functional CNS sites of action for the cannabinoids. Conscious rats were injected i.v. with one of four doses of THC (0.5, 1, 4, 16 mg/kg). 11-OH-THC (4 mg/kg), or vehicle 30 min prior to sacrifice. Regional cerebral blood flow was determined autoradiographically using the freely diffusible tracer method of Sakaruda et al. Changes in regional cerebral blood flow were observed in 16 of the 37 areas measured. Decreases in regional cerebral blood flow following THC were seen in such areas as the CA1 region of the hippocampus, frontal and medial prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens, and the claustrum. Thresholds for these effects ranged from 0.5 to 16 mg/kg. Areas unaffected by THC include the medial septum, ventral tegmental area, caudate, temporal, parietal and occipital cortex, and cerebellum. These data indicate that THC and its active metabolite, 11-OH-THC, cause a heterogeneous alteration in the activity of specific CNS sites, many of which are involved in the characteristic behavioral actions of THC.