If you should ever doubt the true level of human ingenuity then perhaps you have never dealt with a drug-addicted teenager or a welfare recipient in need of a cigarette.
One such example was published in this newspaper recently and the other came to me from a frustrated grocery store employee. Both highlight the lengths that some will go to in order to reach their goal.
Years ago people who used government-issued food stamps had to tear coupons in various monetary increments from a food stamp coupon book to pay the cashier. Of course, like today, only certain items could be purchased with the stamps.
Change from the coupons was made in regular currency.
Stamp recipients did not have to be terribly ingenious to figure out that they could buy a gallon of milk with a $20 food coupon, then purchase liquor and cigarettes with the change they received.
As a teenager I worked as a grocery bagger, and some people were more subtle than others when conducting such transactions.
Some would purchase their milk, get their change, then go back for beer and cigarettes and purchase them through another cashier’s line.
Others would simply separate the items on the conveyer belt, pay for the milk, then immediately turn around and pay for the other items with the change.
It frustrated hardworking grocery store employees for years.
The government eventually caught up. Today those receiving food stamp assistance simply have to slide their “Pine Tree” cards at the checkout, much like debit cards, and the purchases are deducted from their monthly allotments.
It’s clearly a quicker, more convenient system and much less stigmatizing for those using it.
But foolproof from abuse? Hardly.
Earlier this week a grocery store employee watched a woman use her food stamp card to purchase five cases of bottled water. A perfectly legitimate purchase.
But it would seem she actually wasn’t that thirsty.
A few minutes later when the employee dashed out to retrieve something from his car he watched as the woman methodically opened all 120 bottles and dumped the water into the parking lot.
Do you see where I’m going with this yet?
That’s right. The woman gathered up all of her empty bottles, walked back into the store vestibule and returned them for their cash deposit.
Another trip through the checkout and the woman had in her possession a fresh pack of cigarettes, compliments of the taxpayers.
Speaking of geniuses, if you believe the warnings from law enforcement at a drug detention forum in Calais recently, a parent needs to be one in order to stay ahead of drug-using teens who apparently have come up with stunning ways to hide their stashes.
As part of the forum a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent asked a parent volunteer to inspect a school backpack for drugs or any items that suggested drug use.
The parent found none.
The agent then revealed that pills were secreted inside a lip balm tube; pot was hidden in the binding of a school dictionary, and pills and other drugs were hidden inside fake soda bottles.
Of course, for decades parents have had to think creatively in order to stay a step ahead of misbehaving teenagers, but for most of those years the range of ideas those teenagers had access to were limited to the other like-minded teens in their community or school.
Today teens have limitless Internet resources where they can share and learn about astonishing ways to get high, get drunk, hide drugs and pass drug tests.
Generations of people have tried to come up with clever ways to smuggle liquor into places where it is prohibited, such as movie theaters or school dances.
But according to the drug officials at that Calais drug detention forum, some of today’s most creative substance-seeking teens have gone so far as to soak tampons in vodka, then insert them into their rectums in an attempt to catch a buzz.
That particular nugget of information caused me to wince just a bit.
These two stories that came my way this week show the government can and should continue to tighten up the loopholes still plaguing the welfare system, and certainly parents need to keep searching bedrooms, pawing through pockets and sniffing at jackets.
But I suspect the ingenious restricted seeker, whether it’s the woman in the grocery store parking lot dumping out 120 bottles of water or the troubled teen on a mission, most often will find a way to stay a step ahead.