Aims The activation of cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2)-mediated pathways might represent a promising anti-atherosclerotic treatment. Here, we investigated the expression of the endocannabinoid system in human carotid plaques and the impact of CB2 pharmacological activation on markers of plaque vulnerability in vivo and in vitro. Methods and results The study was conducted using all available residual human carotid tissues (upstream and downstream the blood flow) from our cohort of patients symptomatic (n = 13) or asymptomatic (n = 27) for ischaemic stroke. Intraplaque levels of 2-arachidonoylglycerol, anandamide N-arachidonoylethanolamine, N-palmitoylethanolamine, N-oleoylethanolamine, and their degrading enzymes (fatty acid amide hydrolase and monoacylglycerol lipase) were not different in human plaque portions. In the majority of human samples, CB1 (both mRNA and protein levels) was undetectable. In downstream symptomatic plaques, CB2 protein expression was reduced when compared with asymptomatic patients. In these portions, CB2 levels were inversely correlated (r = −0.4008, P = 0.0170) with matrix metalloprotease (MMP)-9 content and positively (r = 0.3997, P = 0.0174) with collagen. In mouse plaques, CB2 co-localized with neutrophils and MMP-9. Treatment with the selective CB2 agonist JWH-133 was associated with the reduction in MMP-9 content in aortic root and carotid plaques. In vitro, pre-incubation with JWH-133 reduced tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α-mediated release of MMP-9. This effect was associated with the reduction in TNF-α-induced ERK1/2 phosphorylation in human neutrophils. Conclusion Cannabinoid receptor type 2 receptor is down-regulated in unstable human carotid plaques. Since CB2 activation prevents neutrophil release of MMP-9 in vivo and in vitro, this treatment strategy might selectively reduce carotid vulnerability in humans