Soon after the discovery of cannabis by western societies, its psychotropic effects overshadowed its medical benefits. However, investigation into the molecular action of the main constituents of cannabis has led to the discovery of an intercellular signalling system, called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS comprises a set of molecular components, including enzymes, signalling lipids and G-protein coupled receptors, which has an outstanding role in modulating eating behaviour and energy homeostasis. Interestingly, evidence has shown that the ECS is present at the central and peripheral nervous system, modulating the function of the hypothalamus, the brain reward system and the brainstem, and coordinating the crosstalk between these brain structures and peripheral organs. Indeed, the ECS is present and functional in metabolically relevant peripheral tissues, directly modulating their physiology. In the context of a global obesity pandemic, these discoveries are highly suggestive in order to design novel pharmaceutical tools to fight obesity and related morbidities. In fact, a cannabinoid-based first generation of drugs was developed and marketed. Their failure, due to central side-effects, is leading to a second generation of these drugs unable to cross the blood–brain barrier, as well as other ECS-focused strategies that are still in the pipeline. In the next few years we will hopefully know whether such an important player in energy homeostasis can be successfully targeted without significantly affecting other vital processes related to mood and sense of well-being. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.