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By Joel Yambert, MS, BCMAS, Pharm.D. Candidate, Class of 2020
University of Arizona College of Pharmacy

Have you had a doctor tell you to stop taking a certain medication, or maybe you forgot to continue taking it for it a little bit—maybe the drug is even expired? What are you supposed to do with all these extra pills, patches, inhalers, or other medicines you no longer need? Luckily, there are a couple of different ways to get rid of unwanted or expired medications. These methods help keep the general population safe, and the environment, too.

DEA Drug Take Back Days

The DEA Diversion Control Division posts the next “Drug Take Back” dates on their website to inform people when and where they can dispose of their prescription drugs, while also providing education about potential abuse of medications.The drug take back days generally happen in April and October of each year. The next take back day (at the time of writing this article) is scheduled for April 25th, 2020.

The Legislative Agenda

Many states are creating laws and regulations in hopes that more people will be able to return their medications. In New York, the Drug Take Back Act (DTB) of Chapter 120 Laws of 2018 states that manufacturers establish, fund, and manage a New York state approved drug take back for the safe collection and disposal of unused covered drugs. Certain laws are pushing for it to become easier to return unused drugs for safe and proper collection at any time and not just on certain take back dates.

Drug Return, Recycle, and Reuse

There are other reasons to return your unused drugs, other than just freeing up space in your medicine cabinet. In many states, you can even donate the prescription drugs and return them to be recycled and reused for other patients. As of Fall 2018, there were 38 states that enacted laws for reuse and donation.

For example, Iowa started a program in 2007 and it has since helped 71,000 patients and redistributed $17.7 million in free supplies and medications to people in need. That is a huge help to others who are struggling to afford their prescriptions by simply returning your unused medications.

Are you paying too much for your medications?

What Cannot be Taken Back

Although it is encouraged to return almost all of your unused and expired medications to these take back locations, there are certain items that cannot be returned:

  • Needles, syringes, or other sharps
  • Thermometers
  • Empty containers
  • Bloody or infectious waste
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Illicit drugs (marijuana, cocaine, etc.), and more.

Almost every other prescription-medication related can be taken back. But, if the location is not able to take an item back, then they will likely be able to tell you the best place to get rid of it instead.

Safety Above All Else

The main concern for these drug take back programs is the safety of people, animals, and the environment. Drugs can end up in drinking water or being ingested by animals. Even when people use the restroom, there can sometimes still be trace amounts of unmetabolized drug making it back into drinking water after treatment. 

Programs like “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day” are vital in protection and well-being of our water supply and lives. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 6.2 million Americans misused controlled prescription drugs, mostly from family and friends—frequently from the medicine cabinet.

With current events like the opioid crisis occurring, it is not in anyone’s best interest to keep those kinds of drugs around. Additionally, it is not a good idea to throw them in the trash. People seeking drugs often dig through garbage looking for these particular drugs. So the next time you open the cabinet and see your unused or unfinished medications, it may be time to find when and where your next drug take back is taking place.


  1. https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/index.html
  2. https://www.health.ny.gov/professionals/narcotic/drug_take_back.htm
  3. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-prescription-drug-return-reuse-and-recycling.aspx
  4. http://www.takebackyourmeds.org/what-you-can-do/what-can-you-take-back/
  5. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs-2016/NSDUH-DetTabs-2016.pdf

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