Cannabinoid receptors are members of the superfamily of G protein-coupled receptors. Their activation has previously been shown to stimulate guanosine 5'-O-(3-[35S]thio)-triphosphate ([35S]GTP gamma S) binding in a range of brain regions using both membrane preparations and autoradiography. This study evaluates the activities of structurally diverse cannabinoid receptor ligands in the GTP gamma S binding assay, comparing the relationship between receptor binding and activation and also examining efficacy differences between compounds. Using rat cerebellar membrane preparations, the effects of GDP concentration on GTP gamma S binding and the activities of a range of cannabinoid receptor ligands, including the CB1 selective antagonist SR141716A, were investigated. GDP concentration was found to have differing effects on cannabinoid-stimulated [35S]GTP gamma S binding depending on the nature of the agonist used. The stimulation produced by high efficacy compounds, such as CP 55,940 and WIN 55212-2, was increased by raising the GDP concentration, but that of a low efficacy agonist, (-)-delta-tetrahydrocannabinol, was decreased. Of the cannabinoid compounds tested, a wide range of potencies (EC50) and levels of maximal stimulation (Emax) were observed. These ranged from CP 55,244 (Emax of 165, 148-183%, and an EC50 of 0.47, 0.22-0.96, nM) through (-)-delta-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabinol and anandamide, which produced no concentration-dependent stimulation of [35S]GTP gamma S binding under the same conditions. SR141716A competitively antagonized all the agonists against which it was tested, providing equilibrium dissociation constants (Kd values) in the sub-nanomolar range (0.06-0.40 nM), implicating a CB1 receptor mediated response. These results provide a more detailed characterization of the cannabinoid-stimulated [35S]GTP gamma S binding assay than has previously been reported.