To assess the quantity and nature of prescribed medicines with potential for misuse returned to community pharmacies and general practice surgeries. Setting Community pharmacies (n = 51, 85% total) and general practice surgeries (n = 42, 69%) within the boundaries of Eastern Birmingham Primary Care Trust, UK. Method Medicines returned spontaneously by patients to participating sites were collected over eight weeks in May and June 2003. Data were recorded for each medicinal item including: patient sex, recommended International Non-proprietary Name (rINN), strength, form, legal classification, quantity and number of doses per day. Medicines were categorised into BWF therapeutic groups. A 'medicinal item' was defined as the total number of dose units of a medicine of the same form, strength and date of issue, returned for a given patient. Key findings Medicines were returned from 910 patients comprising 3765 medicinal items (2782 (73.9%) prescription-only medicines and 356 (9.5%) controlled drugs). Substantial amounts of unused, prescribed medicines with potential to cause harm or for misuse were returned, with analgesics, psychoactive and antiepileptic agents comprising 19.4% of returned medicinal items. Medicines of note that were returned included paracetamol-containing medicines (16 630 tablets), morphine (56 g), diamorphine (4.3 g), tramadol (2840 tablets and capsules), benzodiazepines (677 tablets) and tricyclic antidepressants (2831 tablets). Conclusions Substantial quantities of prescribed medicines with potential to cause harm or be misused are routinely present in the community. The management of these unused medicines, and in particular controlled drugs, Is currently inadequate and further work is required to identify the legislative and patient-centred processes required to minimise the potential for these medicines to be misused or cause harm. © 2007 The Authors.